Jeffery A. Martin is the co-founder of the Finders Course, an exciting new program that has come as the result of over 8 years of academic research into higher states of consciousness. From his studies, Jeffery recognized that everyone has the potential to achieve an enlightened state by learning techniques that are accessible to all, with the proper training. In the Finders Course, these techniques are shorn of the religious dogma that has often accompanied them throughout millennia. In this interview, Jeffery discusses the work he’s doing and where it is heading.
Ken Jordan: Please tell us about the work you’ve done that led up to the Finders Course?
Dr. Jeffery A. Martin: Absolutely. For the last 8-plus years, we’ve been exploring this worldwide — literally across 6 continents, with over a thousand official research subjects and thousands of unofficial people. On any given day, I’m talking to many people who experience what we call Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience. This state is publicly known by terms like “enlightenment,” “non-duality,” “persistent mystical states,” “unitive states,” such as “union with God,” or with the Divine or with nature,” or “transcendental consciousness.” Things like that. Our term for it is Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience, which we often shorten to PNSE.
Over that last 8 years, we’ve collected a large amount of data from these types of individuals. The data is psychological and cognitive science-based. Originally, neuroscientists would scan them with fMRI, look at them with EEG and MEG and other types of technologies, and try to determine what’s going on in their brain and nervous system. That lasted up to about 2011.
After that we had a really good picture, not only of the qualitative data, but also of the neuroscience. Then we began working on technology in this area, trying to ask ourselves: can we produce these brain states? Can we get to these brain states by using brain stimulation or neurofeedback technologies?
What kinds of practices did you examine? Was it meditation, or yoga, or people using entheogens to enhance their state of consciousness?
Our subjects weren’t method-based so much as claim- and culture- and ideology- and belief-based. Rather than someone saying, “I’m a yoga practitioner and I’ve been practicing for 30 years,” or whatever, we looked for were people who purported a fundamental shift in who they are towards these types of directions. Towards “enlightenment,” if that was the term that their tradition used for it, or towards “non-duality,” if that was the correct term, and so forth.
Initially, we started off with people who were validated by a community of some kind – venerated teachers in established traditions, that type of thing. As the research project went on, the data was very homogeneous, so we were able to widen out and include “ordinary” people, such as a programmer in Nebraska, or a small business person in New Jersey. We actually found those people much more interesting, because they weren’t out there teaching. They didn’t have anything they were trying to sell, or that they were trying to convince you of, from an ideological or belief standpoint. All of the methods that rose to the top through those interviews are what constitutes the Finders Course.
Last year, because the brain stimulation and neurofeedback technologies were still a ways off, we put together an experiment. We wanted to get to a point where we could collect data on people before and after this fundamental shift occurred for them. Up to that point, we’d only been able to collect data on people who had been in PNSE for at least a year. That was our cutoff. We had no directly collected data, basically, about what came before the shift. Getting an A/B research design was super important to us. When it became clear, after really, really giving it a go for a couple of years, that technology needed more time to mature, we went back to the data, which included all of the practices and methods that the participants had been using in order to get them to PNSE.
Originally, you were working with different types of biofeedback or visualization tools, EEG readers, that kind of thing. Can you explain a little bit more about the technology that you first explored?
Exactly. We’re still working hard on that. That’s a huge initiative of ours. We’ve just founded the Transformative Technology Lab at Sofia University in Silicon Valley. We’ve been working very hard in getting all the Consciousness Hacking meet-ups and that kind of stuff going. We’re working to pull together a technology community around all of this. Part of it does involve EEG based neurofeedback.
Is the assumption that if you attach a device to yourself, it can help to lead you to a state of higher consciousness, or a Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience?
That’s the hope.
But you’re saying that the technology itself is not yet ready, is not yet at the level that you expect it to become, in order for it to be helpful in that way.
That’s right. We’re working with people all over the world to push the envelope. Folks that are working on the cutting edge of all of these technologies. It might not necessarily even be a technology that leads you there, like an EEG-type technology, where you’re guided to PNSE through biofeedback. Instead, it may be a direct brain stimulation technology.
We’ve experimented with all of these and we’re interfacing with the people who are doing the latest generation type of that technology. Again, we think it’s a little ways off.
So you’re finding that the traditional lineages that have been teaching consciousness practices for millennia are, in fact, effective. You can see a measurable shift in somebody’s consciousness when they do the practices. But how do you measure this? How can you determine by looking at the data whether somebody is in a higher state of consciousness?
The easiest way for us to do it over time was to develop a set of questions that you could only answer correctly if you were there in that state. In other words, you couldn’t crib the answers and you couldn’t find them anywhere. We weren’t presenting them at academic conferences, or writing about them, or anything like that.
Literally, when I sat down with you, if you answered the question a certain way, then we knew that you were part of this population. Those questions and answers emerged from the earliest research with the venerated spiritual teachers and religious teachers. That’s, by far, the easiest and quickest way to arrive at them.
Since then, we’ve developed measures that we put those questions into as well. We did do quite a bit of physiological measurement, recording of different aspects of the people’s physiology. But, certainly, the shortest, quickest, simplest, easiest way is to just see if they know how to answer the questions correctly, just as all of the others had, those thousands of other people who are like, “Oh, yeah. That totally nails it.”
In these lineages, they say that it could take decades of dedicated practice to attain the highest levels available to you. How is it possible people could come to PSNE in a short time while keeping their day job and still picking up the kids from school?
What we learned is that there’s essentially two key secrets. I don’t think you could really detect them until you had a study like ours that went across so many different cultures and belief systems. Although I keep talking about spirituality and religion, it’s important to know there are a lot of atheists and agnostics who also experience PSNE, people who aren’t part of a tradition. There’s lots of different ways that this happens to people. It’s not just people who are trying to get there. Sometimes it happens from the depths of depression and a switch just flips, for instance.
There were 2 key points that shook out of this qualitative, non-technological side of the research.
First, there were only a relatively small number of methods that really seemed to work for more than just the tiniest fraction of people. That was a huge surprise for us. If you go to Google and search on “meditation,” for example – pick the practice that you want to get into – there are millions of variations. The most amazing thing to us is that there was a relatively small number of total categories that actually did seem to work for our participants. That was secret number 1.
Is what you’re suggesting that the practices of a Jesuit monk, a Peruvian shaman, and a Hindu seeker, even if they’re different on the surface, are actually quite similar?
Not quite. There are similar things that go across multiple traditions. Most spiritual and religious traditions have been uncovering these practices and perfecting them for years. Yet, even within those traditions, a relatively small number of people find the practices effective.
This takes us to the second key finding, or secret, that emerged from all of this: You have to do more than discover the needle in the haystack methods that are known to work; you have to find the method that works for you – right now. Just because you know a list of methods that are most likely to work, doesn’t mean that a large percentage of those methods are going to work for you at any given time.
To give you an example of how this emerges from a research standpoint, think of it like this: you want to reach PNSE, so you go on the Internet and search. There’s so much stuff that you’re bombarded with that probably, eventually, you’ll give up and ask a friend who has a similar interest, or you’ll take your best guess.
One of a few things is going to happen for you at that point, which is what we found. You may get remarkably lucky and the very first thing that you try is a home run for you. It’s a method that works really well, and is ideally matched to you right now in this moment. If that’s the case, you’ll probably tell us that you woke up pretty quickly. It could have been within a week, it could have been within a few days, it could have been within a few months, but it’s rapid.
The second option is that you find a technique and it doesn’t work, but there’s some lore, if you will, around that technique. The people promoting it say it is the only technique that really works, and that if you just keep practicing this technique, eventually it’ll work for you. If you buy into that lore then you’re going to be reporting one of three different paths.
The first path is that you may eventually, psychologically or developmentally, come into alignment with that method. You’re not waking up in 3 months or 6 months or 3 days or whatever, but maybe you’re waking up in 7 years or 40 years, something like that. You’re on the long road. If at some point, your psychological development matches and comes into alignment with the technique later in your life, that method may eventually work for you and it may eventually wake you up.
You see this in traditions that advocate a single method. Some people wake up like lickity split – they’re in the initiation ceremony and, boom, they wake up. Other people practice this stuff for decades and decades. Fifty years in, finally, they wake up. Many, many people never wake up because that method was just never going to come into alignment with them. That’s the second path.
If you’re in a religious or spiritual tradition, your success often depends on how many of the “greatest hits” techniques are encapsulated within it. Some techniques, like mantra-based stuff, cut across everything. Pretty much every tradition you fall into is going to have some mantra-based practice. This is one of the “greatest hits” methods that sorts to the top of the list.
You can find mantra-based practices in almost any religious or spiritual tradition. If mantras wind up being the technique that’s aligned to you, then you’re in luck. But your friends probably won’t be as fortunate. Many of them will never make it work, while some of them might come into alignment with the technique at a later point in their life.
The third path is you try something, and you give it a week or two, or a month, or whatever and it doesn’t seem to be doing anything for you. Then you start to search again. At this point you’re back to the matching process. Obviously, the people in our study woke up. They eventually found something that worked for them.
Essentially, those are the paths. In looking at our findings, it became clear that we had the list of the greatest hits. It wasn’t long before we started to wonder what would happen if we had people doing only them.
We started experimenting with how long you had to practice a technique in order to tell whether or not there was a positive or negative effect. All impacts aren’t necessarily positive. You can be out of alignment with a method just like you can be in alignment. When out of alignment, usually what happens is that the technique just doesn’t work for you, but sometimes people have very negative experiences.
What we determined was that, in a week, with diligent practice for at least an hour a day, you could tell whether or not you were in alignment with a method.
How many practices did you catalog like this? What’s the range?
So far, based on our research, the top 6 applied to just about everybody. The Finders Course incorporates these 6 techniques. We have people work through them – one a week, one after another.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. There’s a ridiculous amount of research complexity under the hood of this thing. We try to make it look very simple if you’re participating in the course/experiment. We think of it as an experiment, but, of course, it’s put out there as a course for people.
For instance, it’s not just 6 weeks. Some of those methods that sort to the top, some people have an issue with them. You may or may not have heard of the phenomenon of dark knights. These are periods of emotional distress that can last for days, months, years, or even decades. The phenomenon is actually being researched academically now. Willoughby Britton at Brown University has a lab and a center and is working on this. She’s really the first one to dig into it in a meaningful, psychological, neuroscience way.
A couple of the six techniques are known for producing dark knights in some people who try them. Obviously, we didn’t want our experiment to mess people up.
We had to take some time and look into what we could do to mitigate dark nights. That led us to add 6 weeks to the course. Overall, the course wound up being 15 weeks. The first 6 weeks are primarily designed to get you into a psychological sweet spot so that you don’t dark knight in the second half of the course. Then there’s a practice intensive between the first 6 weeks and the second 6 weeks.
We also added an additional practice week to the second part of the course. Basically, there seemed to be a point where people were waking up a lot. We felt like it was a good idea to give them some extra time to allow the maximum amount of shifts for people.
What are people reporting as their experience of being woken up?
One of the greatest things about my job is that every single week people fill out an evaluation form. We use many gold-standard academic measures at the beginning, middle, and end of the course. Each week, we also have a tracking measure.
I’m probably the world’s leading academic expert on Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience at this point, and I would have bet everything I had against this kind of rapid transition to PNSE being possible. That was a huge surprise. I’m still in a little bit of disbelief about it, even though now we’ve had so many people make that transition.
What is actually happening to these people? Are they able to meditate for hours with clear minds free of thought? They’re feeling a connection to light in their body?
They’re really shifting into persistent states. We’re talking about a persistent, ongoing way that reality is experienced. The places that are being reached are the same ones reported by our previous research participants. In one tradition they might call themselves enlightened, or in other traditions, they might call themselves non-dual or persistently mystical, or whatever.
In our research, we classified a number of different types of these experiences. We determined that there’s a continuum of them, and that they change depending on a number of underlying factors: Differences in cognition, thoughts, and thinking. There are also differences in emotion. There are differences in how memory shows up. And there are differences in perception.
These cluster in different ways and we place them along a continuum. We say, for instance, that some research participants reporting enlightenment are in Location 1. Others might be in Location 3, or Location 4. There’s different ways that this experience shows up.
The other big surprise out of the course, a huge surprise, was that we were expecting to track people for years. We thought we’d be collecting data on these people for a long time, and maybe one might wake up eventually.
There were other surprises, besides the fact that they woke up in the class or shortly after it. The first is that they landed all across that continuum. Some of them woke up in Location 1, some of them in Location 2, some of them in Location 3, some of them in Location 4. They represented the breadth of what was possible within this experience.
By different locations, I assume you mean that there are different clusters of experience. For instance, some may be more in touch with guides, while others might hold that clear, compassionate, meditative place. Are you looking at these lineages and comparing their commonalities, studying people who have attained certain states and grouping them together into these 4 different locations, as you call it?
Yes, absolutely. We look deep under the hood with our cognitive science questions that were designed to sort for neurological measurement. We’ve really only asked these types of questions. If you wanted to talk to us about how your awareness felt, or whatever else, you didn’t get away with that with us very long. We asked direct questions about changes in cognition, emotion, perception, memory, sense of self, things like that. Rigorous, hardcore cognitive science and psychological questions. That’s what made us successful, frankly. We were able to get under everyone else’s language.
If you were to just interview all of these folks and you were to allow them to speak about this in the way that they were used to, they all sound totally different from each other. We were not allowing them to speak from their own belief systems or the normalized ways that they’d learned to talk about it in their community, and instead forced them to dig down in. That’s why nobody already knew the answers to our questions.
There were people in the study who had thousands of students who has asked them questions over decades. Yet, when we would ask them our questions, they’d be like, “Hmm.” They’d have to stop and think about it. No one had ever asked them those questions before.
If you were to actually listen to the interviews that we did, you’d hear a question then, most often, a long gap while the person is feeling around for how they’re going to answer it. Then an answer and another question, followed by a long gap. It’s amazing, if you think about the fact that it had really never been tackled in that way before. That’s was really the secret sauce that made it all work.
There’s one other thing I would say that was a really neat finding from this research protocol, what we’re publicly calling it the Finders Course. It also allows people to get back to peak or mystical type experiences that they had previously.
One of the most heartening things for me was to have heard people describing a beautiful landscape that they looked out at 40 years ago, and they had this amazing unity experience. It changed them, but for decades they’ve been wanting to experience that again. Nothing that they’d ever done had worked, until they took the course. One of the super cool things about the course is it seems to provide a regularity of access to those types of experiences for those people again.
We collected a lot more data week to week during the recent course than we did during the initial pilot one. Again, that first time we thought we were going to be collecting data for years. We didn’t expect people to be waking up in the course, so it wasn’t structured for that. This time, we could structure the data collection with the expectation that at least some people might wake up in the course.
One of the interesting things that we’ve learned in this particular run of it is that it’s very common for people to have temporary experiences of PSNE before they have a persistent shift, before it becomes their default operating mode in the world.
It does seem like oftentimes there’s a frequency that happens. It happens more and more. Maybe it’ll be happening 4, 5, or 6 times throughout the day, for instance. Or if it’s not showing up like that, maybe it’s happening once or twice a day, but those periods are getting longer. There’s an interesting sinking in process that we’re seeing and learning about as well.
Do you take a position on whether these experience people are having are either internally generated and due to human neurology, or that they come from an encounter with something beyond the self? It seems, from the way you describe it, that the program is actually agnostic about that distinction.
That’s exactly right. It’s completely agnostic about that distinction.
In interviewing people that go through it – and this incidentally matches the findings from all of the previous research that we did – religious people will often report that when the experience settles in for them in a persistent way, when they do get to that persistent state of non-symbolic experience, it very often does have that feeling of divinity or God or whatever flavor they’ve absorbed, if you will, from a belief system or an ideological standpoint.
Conversely, if you’re coming to the course as an atheist, one of the standard things that goes along with this type of way of being is that you’ll often feel much more connected. You’ll feel like you extend beyond your body, things like that. That can show up in a divine presence way, sure. But for an atheist or an agnostic, often it shows up as a connection to nature. Or as a connection to all that is, or a sense that everything is consciousness – more of a panpsychist type of notion.
What we’ve seen in the course is that regardless of which side you fall on, those things both emerge from underlying changes that are produced by going through this protocol. It’s really quite fascinating.
Image by Kah Wai Sin, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.