The veteran meditators in the MRI could do each of the resting states perfectly, but when it came to creating a contrasting condition, they were helpless. They had lost the ability to “let their minds wander” because they had long ago shed the habit of entertaining discursive narrative thoughts. They no longer worried about how their hair looked, or their to-do lists, or whether people thought they were annoying. Their minds were largely quiet. When thoughts did come – and they did still come – these subjects reported that the thoughts had a different quality, an unfixated quality. The thought “This MRI machine is extremely loud” might arise, but it would quickly evaporate. Thoughts seemed to emerge as-needed in response to different situations and would then disappear crisply into the clear backdrop of consciousness. In other words, these practitioners were always meditating.
This turned out to be the least dramatic of Vago’s discoveries. With the two most experienced meditators, something even more surprising happened, something that, to the knowledge of the investigators involved, had never before been captured on any kind of brain imaging technology.
Lying on their padded gurneys in the center of the humming MRI in this famous research hospital in the heart of East Boston and Harvard Medical School, each of the two research subjects suddenly … disappeared.
Har-Prakash Khalsa, a 52-year old Canadian mail carrier and yoga teacher – and one of the veterans to whom this happened – describes his experience:
“It’s a kind of pressure or momentum. I was in one of the rest states, and as I let go of it, I felt myself heading into a much bigger dissolution – a bigger ‘gone’ as Shinzen would call it. It felt impossible to resist. My mind, body and world just collapsed.”
A few moments later – blinking, refreshed, reformatted – Har-Prakash returned to consciousness, not at all sure how he was to supposed to fit this experience into the research protocol. He couldn’t indicate it with a button press even if he wanted to: there was no one present to press the button.
This wasn’t rest – it was annihilation.