Donna: I want to thank you for agreeing to spend this time with us today. Our dear friend, Jonathan, has spoken so much about you. Now, I finally get to meet you in person!
Jeffery: Oh, that’s sweet. He’s amazing, of course.
Donna: He is amazing. It sounds like you’re amazing, too, because in preparing for this interview, I’ve been reading all these things that you’re involved in… It’s mind-boggling. I just want to commend you on all of your books and your talks. I’m very excited by your work. I can’t wait to get to know more about it.
Jeffery: Well, awesome. Thanks so much.
Donna: Well, if you don’t mind, we can just dive right in. We have a special way that we like to start. As this is awaken.com, we like to start with the question of awakening and what it means to awaken…
Jeffery: Well, you’re asking a scientist what it means to awaken… I know as much as anybody that the definitions of that are massively varied. There may be as many different definitions of that as there are people who have experienced peak experiences or more persistent experiences, or whatever else. That’s a loaded question that you begin with, but it’s a smart one because it allows you to calibrate with where somebody’s at and how they think about. It allows the audience to really… probably… quickly get a read of all of that.
Also from our side, we are very inclusive. We’re a very broad scientific project. What we’ve sought to do basically is to go out to people who are alive. We don’t do secondary forms of research, like reading people’s books, or analyzing texts, or anything like that. We only deal with people who are living. We basically go out to people who are alive and who report in some way to have some persistent ongoing experience of an awakening. Or enlightenment, or non-duality… or mystical experience in Christianity, or Sufism, or whatever. We’ve probably got close to 300 terms at this point that the people have used all around the world from different traditions and whatever else. I think, for me, if you say, “What is awakening,” I can go really, really narrow into certain subgroups and how they define that or whatever else. From a project standpoint, for us, it’s really very broad. What we’ve tried to do is say what are the similarities across these individuals? Are there similarities across these individuals?
Donna: Are there?
Jeffery: There are. Yes, there really, really are. That was a big debate. Back when I was in graduate school, I had different advisers, of course. They were involved on different sides of the kind of academic debate on this. There’s something called The Common Core, which is kind of a hypothesis that there is similarity across all of this. Then there’s something called Constructivism. It’s led by a different part of the academy. They’re like, “No, no, no. Everybody’s stuff is completely individual. There isn’t anything that’s common across all of these things. If they look common, you’re just reading that wrong. The research hasn’t gone deep enough.” Then there’s people that are in the middle of that, to top it all off.
So, we just really went out and started to research people with academic measures — psychology measures like well-being, happiness, developmental measures, personality measures, psychopathology measures, all kinds of stuff like that. Then we started to interview them. The interviews were actually very long. It took between six and 12 hours for us to complete an interview with someone because people’s language… you really have to understand phenomenologically what it is that’s going on inside them. When they’re using a term, what does that term actually specifically relate to, in terms of their lived experience?
I can remember one time… just to give you a quick example… there was somebody that I was sure was going to be in a certain type of fundamental well-being or persistent non-symbolic experience… are our terms for it. Depending upon whether we’re talking to an academic crowd, it’s the latter, or the public, it’s the former. This person has been around the lab. They were a girlfriend of somebody that worked in the lab. I had a pretty good idea, I thought, where this person was at, but despite that, it took like six hours of her sitting in my office in order for me to just nail down how she was using the word “love” internally from a phenomenological standpoint. This is not easy.
Donna: That’s right. Well, you have a program, and I’m sorry to interrupt, called “The 45 Days to Awakening.” In that sense, you’re using the word “awakening.” I’m wondering, are you using it in a certain sense? What would be your elevator speech for what that’s all about?
Jeffery: Yes, we use the word “awakening” because it’s the one that most people are familiar with. So, we have a very broad survey of what people… what language people use to identify with something, like what we refer to as fundamental well-being or persistent non-symbolic experience. Awakening, basically, is at the top of the list. I wrote a fiction book a long time ago with a co-author trying to find… It became huge. The book sold like a half a million or a million copies or something. It is crazy what happened to that book. It is called “The Fourth Awakening.” It wasn’t an accident that we use the word “awakening.” It’s the same with “The 45 Days to Awakening.”
Donna: Yes, people are responding to that word.
Jeffery: Yes, that word is like the one that’s neutral in the psyche, kind of.
Donna: Even more than “enlightenment?”
Jeffery: Very much so… more than enlightenment, yes. Very, very much.
Donna: You use this term “peak experience” and you also use the other expression… “persistent…
Jeffery: “Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience.”
Donna: “…Non-Symbolic Experience.” Are you talking about the same thing in those cases? Do you have an experience that you could share personally, that goes beyond the academic?
Jeffery: We’re not… I suppose so. Usually, I don’t do that, but yes, I’ve experienced all these various things at this point.
Donna: Well, that would be… I would love to hear more about what it has felt like to you. Is it a shift of consciousness that you’ve been able to experience directly? Was that the impetus to teach and to help others achieve that same state?
Jeffery: No, if you go back close to 20 years now, before the start of the second demo project, I was essentially a successful entrepreneur. I had spent decades at that point, at least a decade and a half, really trying to just figure out how to be happier. I’d lost my faith when I was a young person. I looked through many if not all of the other major faiths in the world, trying to see if I felt that any were really congruent in terms of what they talked about. None of them seem to be, to me. So, it occurred to me that the only thing that I could really be certain of, was it was probably better to have more well-being today, than you had yesterday, if that was at all possible, or in the next moment, than you had in the last moment or something like that.
I’d spent a lot of years working on my own well-being. Despite that, despite having been really successful and having done everything that I thought the world had really said you should do to be as happy as you can be as a person, it was very clear to me that there are people out there that were a lot happier than I was at that point. That didn’t seem fair to me. I mean, I was kind of like your classic Type-A at that point, right? So, I set out to become…
Donna: What are we doing it all for?
Jeffery: Yes. I set out to become the happiest person alive. It was like a Type-A pursuit of happiness. I didn’t want to just be happy. I want to be happier than you and happier than everybody else, and win the happiness game. That’s the direction that I went in. It led me here. I actually quit all of my businesses. I quit everything that I was doing, and went back to school. I learned how to do scientific research at that point. I had graduate degrees in technology and business, and stuff like that… management. I picked up how to do scientific research. Psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience seem the most relevant to me, so I focused on those. I started to go out and try to find the populations that I thought were the happiest people on earth, and then start to research them and see if I agreed with that and see if they did, in fact, rise to the top.
This group, people that claim to be, to use the term on your side, awakened or I would say persistently awakened because a lot of people use the word “awakening” in a temporary sense. They had some peak experience or something and it changes their life, which is great, but it doesn’t really lead to a persistent ongoing shift in their moment-to-moment well-being and things like that that we can talk about. Basically, I ran across this audience. I ran across the claims that they were making in this subgroup. The claims that they were making… they just sounded crazy, frankly. I figured that they were probably psychopathological, but nonetheless, we had a no stone unturned policy so we started looking into them.
Probably, frankly, initially, with more of a psychopathological lens than maybe we should have, we clearly brought our biases from the academic world into our lens of how we viewed those people. We didn’t really find anything psychopathological there. We found that their claims seem to be the case. They became the focus of our investigation, and here we are 20 years later. I had no experience of any of this. I had never… I didn’t drink. I didn’t do drugs. I never had some sort of mystical experience or peak experience. I was really just your normal everyday person, branded kind of an extreme Type-A version of that, who was looking to get happy or happiest. Basically, I was looking to have as much well-being in my life…
Donna: Did that change? You did have some sort of life-changing experience, it sounds like, after that point?
Jeffery: Yeah, I did. If you look at… We have a broad classification system for these types of experiences. More or less, at this point, I’ve experienced all of them.
Donna: Could you share any of those stories?
Jeffery: Maybe. I think my stories are less interesting maybe, than just people being able to have an understanding of where they might be at or what these different types of experiences really are.
Donna: Well, I’m not sure because we’re talking about it in the abstract. It might make it more relatable to talk about something tangible and direct.
Jeffery: Maybe, but I think one of the problems you have when you start talking to spiritual teachers and they start relating their personal stories is that it’s an N of 1. You have entire religions that are set up with that N of 1. One of the issues that we see with the spiritual community right now is that there are a lot more people in fundamental well-being than they realize it. They realized the reason that they don’t realize it is because they’re listening to this or that teacher, they’re listening to this or that personal story of what fundamental well-being is like to that person, or giving that person more authority maybe than they should, over their own experiences. Because their internal experience doesn’t match that teacher, they or that person or maybe even a whole class of people… maybe they’ve just gotten pulled into sort of the neo-Advaita community, or they’ve gotten pulled into this or that other community there, and they’re watching a lot of whoever, right? But they’re all still within a certain sphere of what is the experience that you’re supposed to have.
The reality is that any class of teacher, or any class of system, or something like that, is going to basically be very limited, in terms of the overall range of types of experiences that are available. For instance, we think that there are many types of this that we’ve been able to identify. I would put almost all of the teachers of those traditions that I just mentioned into one type. Now, there are varying degrees of depth, and that’s what they talk about, in terms of the stages of development and all of that and the levels that you can go through. That’s great. Those are all depth within a certain spot, but if you are out there in the public and you get pulled into listening to all of this, then you’re like, “Wow. Jeez. None of that really sounds like me, so I must not be in fundamental well-being.”
In the meantime, early in COVID, we did a project to have a lot more people experience this. We took in about… I think it was like a thousand people in the early month or so of COVID, just because people are having a lot of psychological difficulties. We basically shifted our resources away from lab stuff because we had the ability to do that. Labs were shutting down. You couldn’t have people coming to your lab and do research and stuff anymore. So, we had this additional capacity. We thought, “How do we apply that?” “Well, let’s apply it to help people.”
Ordinarily, we don’t have that many resources available that people can just come and take something like “The 45 Days to Awakening.” We impact maybe like 50 people a month or 100 people at most a month with that program. We have a relatively limited amount because we’re busy. We’re doing a lot of research. We’re doing a lot of other really advanced stuff, like direct brain stimulation research and neuroscience type of research and things like that. We always have some of our staff… part of their time… allocated to these public outreach programs, but it’s more or less not what we were really spending our time on.
Being in COVID, we got all the spare staff time because we’ve had to shut down the labs. We’re like, “Well, let’s do a larger program for people because they really need it.” Of the thousand people that came in assuming that they were not experiencing fundamental well-being, when we did our pre-assessments on them, half of them were experiencing forms of fundamental well-being. They just didn’t know it. They didn’t know it for this reason. That was a big wake-up call for us because we don’t usually take in huge populations like that. We’re usually, “No, there are people that are coming and they’re people that actually need to transition,” and stuff like that. But we didn’t have as much as…
Donna: Just to make sure I understand you because that’s mind-blowing.
Jeffery: I know.
Donna: They didn’t know they were happy is basically kind of what you’re saying.
Jeffery: They might know that they were happy, but they didn’t know that they were in fundamental well-being. Just because somebody is happy doesn’t mean that they make the assumption that they’re persistently awakened, to switch to using your term there.
Donna: How does that disjunct happen where my perception of how I feel doesn’t match what’s being objectively read by you, according to a questionnaire, or what?
Jeffery: It does match with us and the questionnaire. It just doesn’t match with their own belief system. Maybe they were in some form of some sect of Buddhism that they practiced for years and years and years and years and years, and they had never had the experience of sitting in Lotus Position an hour or three when some blue light came slowly from the distance and hit them in their third eye. Like… there are very specific things that people are sometimes looking for. If you watch a bunch of like the neo-Advaita type of people that I mentioned a minute ago, or the general sort of… what we called today, probably just sort of the general non-dual community in the west.
There’s a very specific range of experiences that are considered valid by them. If you get pulled in and you’re watching those videos all the time and you don’t have those exact experiences, you could very easily… In fact, you are thinking to yourself, “Oh, well, that’s not me. I’m not in fundamental well-being.” They don’t realize those people know about like 1/10 of the different types, if that, of fundamental well-being. You’re not in that 1/10, but you could very likely be. In fact, the odds are very high that you’re in another form of it. You’re just not watching those people’s videos or you’re not aware of that type of thing.
Donna: Jeffery, let me bring this way, way down. What is well-being then?
Jeffery: Well, well-being is a pretty broad term. How about what is Fundamental Well-Being?
Donna: How do people classify that? What makes them aware that they are in a state of Fundamental Well-Being? Is it because they feel good everyday? My second question to that would be, is that your goal, as a facilitator of this? Running the kinds of programs that you do, are you trying to help people achieve the state of Fundamental Well-Being on a more permanent basis? If so, how do you gauge that? How does someone gauge that for themselves?
Jeffery: The primary thing that shifts with the transition to Fundamental Well-Being — which can be any form of enlightenment or awakening, or non-duality, or persistent mystical experience, or God-consciousness, or unity consciousness. I don’t care what label you use for it. I don’t care what population we’re talking about because we’ve been across all of them for 20 years at this point. The primary change is actually a rewiring in the brain, involving the survival system. Effectively, we’re all wired for like a hundred thousand years ago. When we really weren’t the top of the food chain. Every other animal is basically wired the same way. If you, for instance, are eating outside, and you have a little extra crumb of bread or something and you toss it to a bird, think about what that bird does. That bird basically pecks at the crumb, but it doesn’t just do that. It’s not like, you just throw it and this bird is like, “Oh, great. A crumb. I’m going to peck it right away.” What does it do first? It looks around to make sure nothing’s going to kill it and that it’s safe to peck at the crumb. It takes a little peck and then immediately starts looking around to make sure nothing’s going to kill it again. Then it pecks the crumb again.
We’re all like that. The difference is, our nervous systems have adapted to a modern human environment where it’s still doing that. There are literally specific rhythms in the brain, that are like 90-second rhythms and things like that, with networks becoming more or less active and switching your attention onto different things. Those are very good ideas to have as humans. I mean, we’ve got to make sure that I’m not so focused on this conversation that I miss if the roof is falling in on me and about to kill me, or something like that. I mean, these are useful things to have, but the problem for us is that, over time, they’ve really just sort of become mismatched with our current environment. We’re living with a… The average human is living with a happiness level that was appropriate, who knows how long? Fifty or a hundred thousand years ago, or something like that. They don’t have to be. That can be upleveled.
Now, you can wire around those. I’m in the middle of the rainforest right now as we’re doing this. I am not worried about an animal coming into my room and ripping my arm off, or my ceiling falling in, or a gunman coming in. I am going to survive this interview. Really, there’s almost no doubt to literally zero doubt in my mind that we’re going to suspend. Why should I have to live moment to moment with an animalistic system that is discontent? That is asking in this moment… that is saying to my nervous system at a very deep level, “Something is probably wrong right now. You better be on guard and check for it.” That’s where most humans are, at a very deep level, just like every other animal… where their nervous system is at.
Now, if I’m living in the Brazilian Rainforest, or if I’m in some countries, I’m very fortunate. I mean, I’m living a modern, western, relatively wealthy, frankly, lifestyle. I mean, everybody in America is one of the richest people in the world. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you actually are. If you look at the global statistic compared to everyone… We’re living a certain safe lifestyle, realistically. I don’t need that programming anymore in my system.
Donna: Let me make sure I understand. Just to make this clear, because to me, this is where it really starts to get juicy, honestly. We have so many… We, collectively, have so many challenges with mental health these days. Finally, it’s becoming part of the everyday conversation. Whereas before. it was so flushed and it still is to an extent, but we’re more willing to talk about how many people are struggling with anxiety, depression, sleep issues. If I’m understanding correctly, from the perspective of science, you’re approaching this from a brain state place. We’re in a place of fear. Our survival mechanism is turbocharged so that we perceive fear like we did thousands of years ago, where those kinds of fears don’t really exist anymore, but it’s a kind of habitual programming that’s in place. We’re like that little bird or like… when I give my dogs a bone and they go to opposite corners with it so that they won’t take each other’s bone. We’re kind of doing that in our own way, so suspicious and aggressive with one another. We see it on the freeway. If I’m understanding you, this way of living is taking away from our ability to be peaceful and what we would call happy, whatever that means.
Jeffery: Yes. That’s the big change. The big shift, regardless of what form of fundamental well-being you’re in, is a fundamental rewiring, very deep. It takes you from what could best be thought of as fundamental discontentment in the moment, to a fundamental sense that everything is okay. Now, it doesn’t mean it’s non-functional. It can be if you go really deep into it. I mean, it can be very non-functional in terms of modern lifestyles and stuff. You better be in a monastery or something. But generally speaking, it doesn’t have to be non-functional. It’s not non-functional for most people in terms of modern life. I don’t mean that in the sense that if a gunman does happen to come into my room… I mean, obviously, I’ll be able to react to that. I’m not going to be like, “Oh, look. A gun. It’s just so peaceful in here. This is so wonderful. Hello, Mr. Gunman.” I mean, it’s not like that. It’s not like rainbows and unicorns type of blissing out and unable to function type of stuff. It’s a highly functional state in most cases, unless somebody wants to really pursue it very, very deeply. Realistically, that’s the shift.
Donna: What is the best path, in your experience, to achieve this shift? Is it one thing? Is it many things? I mean, coming from a Yoga perspective, we work on the breath and this and that to try to relax the nervous system. From your experience, has there been one method that stands out as a kind of necessary practice?
Jeffery: Yes, that’s one of the problems that we had when, eventually, the day came where we wanted to do… before and after research, where we didn’t just want to collect information about what it was like to be in this, or to classify different types of it and say, “Oh, you’re non-dual version,” “You’re a dual version,” “You’re a deeper non-dual version,” or whatever. The tricky part of that was that they really weren’t, even though we were more or less familiar with everything all around the world at that point. There really wasn’t anything that transitioned more than a very small number of people. If you have a method and it transitions three to six percent of people that use it, you have come up with one of the best methods on the planet. It’s that bad at producing transitions with us.
Now, it hasn’t always been. There aren’t a lot of good people inventing modern methods for this. One of the things that is, I think, a very interesting story. I like stories. I’ll give you a good story. One of our researchers was… One of our PhD candidates was sent to research in Myanmar or Burma at some Theravada Buddhist monasteries there, run by someone… a very, very famous person at the time, who has since passed away. She goes to do this… Within a fairly short period of arriving, to do the interviews and all of that, these nuns noticed that their teacher, the super famous guy, in their world, was doing very unusual things with this researcher. For instance, he was giving her food off of his plate, which is apparently like a monstrously huge deal. They started thinking to themselves, “Who is this person? We should get to know this person. This person could be very important.”
These nuns sort of latched on to our researcher. She wound up learning some really interesting things. These were really old nuns who are like 90-year-old nuns. They’ve been at the monastery forever, since they’re like teenage girls or something. They told her a very interesting story. We’ve heard this from all around the world, but this is a fun way to tell it and get the point across. They basically said when they were young girls, people would come to the monastery and they would basically all transition to what, in Theravada terms, would be called “stream entry,” which is essentially a form of Persistent Fundamental Well-Being.
Donna: What was that word again?
Jeffery: Stream entry. The Theravada system has a whole bunch of different classifications of states. They have like first path, second path, third path, arising and passing away, things like that. Stream entry is like a really big deal. Stream entry is like the first major persistent big change. People come here and they would have this persistent shift within a week. Some people didn’t occasionally. Somebody wouldn’t. They would stay a second week. We would help them out. We give them special attention. They were sort of like the slow one. In the second week, they would transition. Occasionally, somebody would stay a third week or a fourth week. At that point, we knew something was wrong, and so we called the authorities because, more or less, the only people that could make it for a month without transitioning were people that were hiding out from the law in our monastery. The army would come and get them and take them away. That would solve that.
Over time, what these nuns saw was a decreasing level of impact from their methods. Instead of adapting their methods over time… They felt that they’ve noticed this… with each major form of media that had come into the country, and they felt that they’ve basically changed the consciousness of people and shifted, sort of, how their brains worked, and they’d kind of increasingly fallen out of effectiveness with these methods, to the point now where if somebody comes, if they stay for three months, they’re lucky if they get stream entry.
That’s the progression that’s happened. It’s not that these methods, these historical methods, were terrible. It’s that that monastery did what everybody else has done and they haven’t updated the methods. They basically just allowed them to go from working for 99% of people that came, with the 1% maybe hiding out from the army, to, at best, a very low single-digit percentage of people. That’s a real departure that has happened in modernity, it seems, in humans around this type of thing. There were populations like that that are really well-tuned genetically and culturally and whatnot for their methods and who their methods work for, for a very, very long time. If somebody wanted to transition, they more or less could transition.
We don’t have that situation now. I mean, when was the last time you heard somebody go to somebody’s retreat — could be even one of the most famous people out there. I don’t care who you pick. — and be like, “You know, 89% of us transitioned. It was just unbelievable. I felt so bad because it took me till day 5. Almost everybody was ahead of me.” I mean, you just never hear that, right?
Donna: This is mindboggling.
Jeffery: If somebody makes incremental progress or has a temporary glimpse, they’re like super thrilled.
Wellbeing Research – For over 15 years Jeffery has conducted the largest international study on persistent non-symbolic experience (PNSE), which includes the types of consciousness commonly known as: enlightenment, nonduality, the peace that passeth understanding, unitive experience, and hundreds of other terms. This resulted in the first reliable, cross-cultural and pan-tradition classification system for these types experience. It also led to the fundamental discovery that these were psychological states that had been identified and adopted for thousands of years by many cultures and belief systems. They were not inherently spiritual or religious, or limited to any given culture or population, and could be molded in many ways to shape the experience. More recently, he has used this research to make systems available to help people obtain profound psychological benefits in a rapid, secular, reliable, and safe way.
Read and Watch Part 2 Here: Awaken Interviews Dr. Jeffery Martin Pt 2 – Evolution of Consciousness Beyond the Mind
Read and Watch Part 3 Here: Awaken Interviews Dr. Jeffery Martin Pt 3 -Four Main States Fundamental Well-Being