Dr. Marjorie Woollacott graduated magna cum laude from the University of Southern California in 1968, and was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa. She received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Southern California in 1973 and her M.A. from the University of Oregon in Asian Studies in 2005. She was a Professor in the Dept. of Human Physiology and a member of the Institute of Neuroscience, at the University of Oregon for 35 years. She was also chair of the Human Physiology Department for seven years. In addition to teaching courses on neuroscience and rehabilitation, she taught courses on complementary and alternative medicine and meditation. She has recently (2017) accepted the position of Research Director for the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS).
Dr. Woollacott has received over 7.2 million dollars in research funding from the National Institutes of Health and other research agencies for her research in child development, aging, rehabilitation medicine and most recently, in meditation. She has published more than 200 scientific articles and written or co-edited eight books. She is the co-author, with Dr. Anne Shumway-Cook of the textbook for health care professionals, titled: Motor Control: Translating Research into Clinical Practice, which is in its 5th edition (2017). Her latest book, Infinite Awareness(2015) (winner of eight awards, including the 2017 Parapsychological Association Book Award, Eric Hoffer Book Award and the Nautilus Book Award) pairs Woollacott’s research as a neuroscientist with her self-revelations about the mind’s spiritual power. She was given the Oen Fellow Award in 2017 from Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa where she was invited to present a public lecture and lead class discussions on her book Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind.
Spiritual Awakening of a Scientist
Dr. Marjorie Woollacott
In 1976, I had an experience in meditation that opened me to the awareness of a dimension of reality I had never before experienced. I was invited by my sister to a meditation retreat by an Indian meditation master, and though I was skeptical, I was curious and decided to attend. In the first session of the retreat, it was announced that during the meditation period the meditation master would walk around the room and initiate everyone there. The host described this as a spiritual awakening, and that it would occur through the master’s touch. As a young neuroscientist I was skeptical. But I was already there, so I made the decision to put my skepticism aside for the duration of the retreat. And, in fact, I was curious to see what might unfold (Woollacott, 2015).
When he reached me, I felt the swami’s thumb and fingers on the bridge of my nose, right between my eyes. I was deeply attentive- I had closed my eyes, but my other senses were fully aware. So when I became aware of what seemed like a current of electricity enter from the master’s fingers into my body, I had a sense of utter certainty about what had happened. It isn’t that I understood precisely what had occurred. To this day, I can’t explain it. But it felt as if a mini-lightning bolt leapt from his fingers to a point between my eyes and then down into the center of my chest. I could feel the precise point where it stopped. It was my heart, not my physical heart but more like my true heart than my physical heart had ever been. I felt this astonishing energy radiate outward from my heart and filling my whole being. It felt like nectar-like pure love pouring through me. Words came to mind, and they were unrelated to scientific analysis: I’m home, I’m home! My heart is my home.
What was most surprising to me was what happened after the retreat was over. When I returned home, without any effort I made a complete shift in my habits, beginning the morning after the retreat. I spontaneously awakened at 5 am, and got up to meditate, and this new habit has continued to this day. I meditated knowing that just below the surface of my awareness simmered a quiet ecstasy. I had tapped it once. I knew it was there waiting for me.
As a result of this meditation experience, I experienced a shift in my worldview and I began to question my materialist perspective. I now had a professional dilemma: I had to consider if the world I live in is truly Newtonian, as I originally believed, or if it is actually consciousness-based. I began to explore the nature of consciousness through my own meditation practice, and through research into the characteristics of conscious experience. I asked: what is consciousness? Is it tied to neural activity? Or could consciousness somehow exist without neurons?
Though I was meditating every morning, in my early years as a meditator I considered myself first and foremost a scientist. The scientific part of me had no interest in finding research support for phenomena that are considered mystical or paranormal. Such experiences are not within the scope of Newtonian science, and this precise, cause-and-effect materialist view of consciousness was still the perspective I held.
This led to a fragmented life. It seemed like there was an almost impossible chasm between my life as a scientist and my life as a meditator. I would reveal one type of experience to my friends who meditated and to my students in the yoga and meditation classes I taught. And then I would bring up the other, very different experiences of mine with my colleagues in neuroscience—those I worked within various areas of rehabilitation. I was so afraid of losing my credibility with my scientific colleagues if they found out about my life as a mediator.
After 25 years of leading two lives, I felt a bit schizophrenic. It was a problem I decided to resolve by publicly integrating the two halves of my experience. I first began to try to bridge this chasm between the two sides of myself by doing scientific research on meditation. I asked, “Does looking at meditation from the third person scientific perspective inform us about the origins of Consciousness?” I wanted to understand if meditation changes our mental abilities—and, if so, how it does this. What could be the physiological basis of such changes? And in fact, our research did reveal that meditation significantly improves our mental abilities. Our lab and many others have shown that meditation improves mental focus and emotional regulation, for example, and that our attentional networks get stronger. This research shows that meditators, in fact, are like high-powered athletes of the attentional arena—their attentional systems become both strong and flexible.
After an extensive period of research and reflection, I wrote my first book on this topic: Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind (Woollacott, 2015). In writing it I was seeking another level of integrity: in addition to summarizing current research on the nature of consciousness, I wanted to speak frankly and openly about my own experiences of expanded awareness as a meditator. I wanted to explore what these experiences have to say about the nature of consciousness and the nature of the human mind. From my continued exploration of meditation, I have learned that to truly understand the nature of consciousness, the third person or scientific perspective is not enough. We need to also include the deep mystical experiences that come from meditation and other spiritual practices.