Dr. Martin wrote:

The term non-symbolic was derived from Cook-Greuter’s (2000) research involving ego development and transcendence. While she generally favored the word postsymbolic, she used a term related to non-symbolic in a 2000 paper, in the following context:

Eastern psychologies have often pointed to the nonsymbolically mediated, or immediate ways of knowing as the only kind of knowing that can lead to enlightenment or true insight into human nature. In fact, they consider our addiction to language-mediated, discursive thought as a major hurdle in realizing the true or divine Self, or union with the Ground. (Cook-Greuter, p. 230)​
As I sought to increasingly identify the most consistent PNSE elements that were being reported by participants, the research became primarily focused on changes in: sense of self, cognition, emotion, memory and perception. These elements were used in an effort to get below individual beliefs, cultural differences, and so forth. It proved to be a highly effective strategy that produced clear and consistent answers.
Breath! You are Alive by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Impermanence also means "signlesness." The reality of all that exists is beyond every concept and linguistic expression. We cannot go directly to their essential and true nature, because we are accustomed to grasping phenomena through the intermediaries of perception and thought. The categories of perception and thought are "signs."

The example of wave and water is often given to help us understand the "signless" nature of all that exists. A wave can be high or low, can arise or disappear, but the essence of the wave - water- is neither hight nor low, neither arising nor disappearing. All signs - high, low, arising, disappearing - cannot touch the essence of water. We cry and laugh according to the sign because we have not yet seen the essence. The essence (svabhava) is the very nature of everything that is and of the reality of ourselves.
Animitto Sutta: The Signless

"Then, friends, paying no attention to any distinguishing signs, I entered on and dwelt in that concentration of the heart which is without signs. But as I dwelt thus,[4] the consciousness-conforming-to-signs arose.[5]

"And then, friends, the Blessed One came to me by his powers[6] and said: 'Moggallaana, Moggallaana, Brahman,[7] do not slacken off in the signless concentration, make your mind steady, make the mind one-pointed, concentrate your mind in the signless concentration!'

"And after that, friends, paying no attention to any distinguishing signs, I entered on and dwelt in the signless concentration of the heart.
Dr. Jeffery A. Martin: ... 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.
I don't see how you can identify an experience of the signless nature of ultimate reality by measuring of "sense of self, cognition, emotion, memory and perception". I think PNSE measures the effects of meditation but not necessarily the experience you have because of that meditation.
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How I Practice Buddhism
Further Reading
Try it Yourself


Can Enlightenment be taught? My thinking on this has changed recently. I approach the question from a Buddhist perspective. In Buddhism the term in the language of the sutras is better translated as "awakening" than enlightenment. There are stages of awakening and the final goal of spiritual practice is to end suffering for the practitioner. (In Buddhism, pain is considered different from suffering. Pain is a physical sensation, suffering is mental anguish. When I write about suffering here I am referring to mental anguish, ie unpleasant emotions.)

My own meditation practice has evolved over time and it has become something very different from what is typically taught by Buddhist teachers. So much so that I posted on the Dharma Overground, a forum for Buddhist practitioners, and asked if what I was doing was even Buddhism. I found out that what I was doing is Buddhism but Buddhist practice is not typically taught in the way I described it. It seems to me that my approach is easier to learn and to practice than the traditional methods of teaching. It doesn't involve any abstruse philosophical concepts, the practices are easy to do, don't require intense concentration, and there is a huge variety that you can choose from.

Buddhist practice centers around learning to let go of attachments and aversion because these mental constructs are the source of mental anguish which constitutes suffering. The key question of Buddhist practice is: How does one learn to let go of attachments and aversions? Different schools offer different solutions. They are based on traditional methods and often involve abstruse philosophical concepts.

How I Practice Buddhism

My answer to the question uses modern knowledge of how the nervous system works. To understand this, consider what it would be like to not experience suffering. Nothing could cause you to experience mental anguish. Anything could happen, and you would be serene and relaxed.

The term for "suffering" in the language of the sutras is "dukkha" and if you google "dukkha = stress", you will find that stress is sometimes used as a translation for dukkha. So one way to understand Buddhism is that the end result of the practice is to end stress. If you look carefully within when you experience any type of unpleasant emotion you will see that it is a form of stress. If you can relax deeply, the emotion, the mental anguish, will dissipate. Maybe you have noticed that sometimes when you wake up from sleep you feel good and it takes a few seconds to remember a big problem you are in the middle of and then you feel unhappy or stressed again? That is because deep relaxation causes unpleasant emotions to dissipate. When you are having a big problem do you ever just want to lay down in bed? That is because when you are deeply relaxed, on the edge of sleep, you don't feel unpleasant emotions as strongly.

So if you could understand how the body switches from "stress" to "relaxation" and learn how to control that switch you could develop a system where you cultivate your ability to turn the switch to "relaxation" and keep it there even when you are in normal waking consciousness.

Because of this, I would say that yes, enlightenment can be taught, because people can learn to control that neurological switch between stress and relaxation.

In modern society people experience a lot of stress. The nervous system becomes better at what it does more often, so people become unbalanced, they become stressed very easily and find it harder to relax. This process can be reversed. By practicing meditation and other relaxation techniques a person can learn to relax very easily and over time become more and more resistant to stress.

The advantage of this perspective on Buddhist practice is that it is easy to understand. There are no complicated philosophical concepts like non-self, dependent origination, or your true nature. And it is easy to measure your progress, you know at anytime if you are feeling stress. You can tell if a practice is helping you immediately. You don't have to hope that something mystical will happen years in the future. And you can use many different relaxation techniques developed by other traditions or modern doctors and scientists. You can use the techniques that work best for you.

(It is also important to understand that sometimes emotions are produced by biological processes. For example, in some cases depression is caused by abnormal brain chemistry and a purely mental technique will not cure it. However any secondary emotional reactions like anger at being depressed, can be helped by relaxation.)

Further Reading

I have several articles on my blog and web site that describe the practices I have found to be helpful:

This article is about the neurological switch between stress and relaxation. It offers many suggestions for relaxation exercises:
"Turning Off Stress: The Parasympathetic Nervous System And Spiritual Development"

This article is about the type of meditation I use. You can use it just for relaxation. Even though it describes a method of producing intense spiritual experiences, you don't have to do that part. I think it helps but it is not a requirement if you want to use the meditation technique for relaxation alone:

More here:
"Focusing the Mind Can Help You Relax"

"Diet and Serotonin" It is possible to increase serotonin levels in the brain by eating protein 20 to 40 minutes after eating carbohydrates.

My posts on this topic at Dharma Overground:

Try it Yourself

If you want to try this type of practice, start doing relaxation exercises. The articles above offer many suggestions. Find the ones that work best for you. Some will work best when you are highly stressed, other will be best when you are only slightly stressed.

The key to this practice is to experience how relaxing makes you feel better. Notice your emotional state after you do the relaxation exercises. Once you see that relaxing reduces unpleasant emotions and makes you feel better you will naturally turn to relaxation when you are suffering. It doesn't take will power any more than taking aspirin for a headache does. You do it because you know from experience that it offers relief

Develop the habit of doing meditation or some type of relaxation every day. Lean how to relax. Noticing what causes you stop being relaxed will help you learn how to stay relaxed. In time your ability to relax and stay relaxed will improve. You will experience fewer unpleasant emotions, less mental anguish, and less suffering.

I liked that article, and I wonder just how far you have managed to take it. For example, can you avoid yourself suffering while (say) having a dental filing - even to the point of not needing a local aesthetic!

I find that focussing on a part of my body that has a problem (e.g. a bit of arthritis, or indigestion) , often seems to fix it.


I liked that article, and I wonder just how far you have managed to take it. For example, can you avoid yourself suffering while (say) having a dental filing - even to the point of not needing a local aesthetic!

I find that focussing on a part of my body that has a problem (e.g. a bit of arthritis, or indigestion) , often seems to fix it.

When I wrote ...

(In Buddhism, pain is considered different from suffering. Pain is a physical sensation, suffering is mental anguish. When I write about suffering here I am referring to mental anguish, ie unpleasant emotions.)
... i meant to imply that pain would still be unpleasant and one would not want to endure it. In the sutras there is a case where Buddha suffered a physical injury and he dealt with the pain by going into a meditative trance so deep that he did not feel pain.

I have found that pain due to illness or injury is much easier to bear when I am in a good mood. Being in pain can be frightening and demoralizing. If you can deal with those two symptoms, it is much easier to bear. So relaxation, meditation, and other techniques to elevate one's mood can help in that way. Particularly, the type of meditation I do can cause the brain to release endorphins which are natural pain killers.

I also use self hypnosis and affirmations to change how I perceive pain. If you tell yourself you are perfectly comfortable, in some cases it can change how you experience or react to different sensations. I think if you want to convince your subconscious mind of something, you can do it by repeating it over an over until you wear ruts into the neurological pathways and it works its way into your implicit beliefs. Repetition is a technique of persuasion. You can use it on yourself.

But I would not want to have a dental procedure without anesthetic.

I write about the subject of meditation because I have found it to be tremendously helpful personally. I am not trying to make money or seeking personal publicity. I want to share the information because I think it would be helpful for other people, and I think the world would be a much better place if people were more relaxed and suffering less. When you are suffering, you are focused more on yourself and are naturally more selfish. When you feel good, you are more likely to be tolerant, loving, and generous.

I don't know if relaxation can be perfected, belief that it can be would have to come from the sutras. I don't think anyone alive is believed to have reached nirvana. I asked on the dharma overground if a fully awakened person would experience the fight or flight response and I learned that this is no consensus on that question.
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(An updated version of this post can be found on my blog;
I have been reading "The Untetherd Soul" by Michael Singer.

I highly recommend this book. Singer offers a somewhat different perspective on certain aspects Buddhism which I have an interest in. His background is in yoga and he writes about many of the more esoteric / mystical aspects of the mind in a way that is much easier to understand than the way it is presented in Buddhism.

He cuts through a lot of the obscure verbal gymnastics you find in Buddhism and explains very clearly how understanding the mind can cause awakening. As far as I have read (74%) he has not given any meditation instructions but if you are already meditating, the information in the book can help you understand how meditation and mindfulness practices should work and how to do them correctly. I have a lot of experience in this area so what I am getting out of it is fairly advanced. I'm not sure how a beginner would react to it. What he is saying is not much different in essence from my own practice (observe the mind, relax, let go of unpleasant emotions) but Singer gives a clear explanation of the nature of the mind and how to use that understanding in combination with letting go of emotions to achieve awakening.

Singer's approach is somewhat different from Buddhism. In Buddhism you are told to meditate and someday if you are lucky something magical will happen and you will get enlightenment and your suffering will end. Singer says you have to confront unpleasant emotions to let go of them and that process leads to enlightenment.

Singer uses some "new age" type jargon chakras and "energy" etc but you can still understand the practical aspects of what to do with the information even if you don't like the way he says it.

I've looked at web sites about yoga and I found them harder to understand than Buddhism so I think what Singer has done is exceptional.

According to his biography "He had a deep inner awakening in 1971 while working on his doctorate in economics and went into seclusion to focus on yoga and meditation."

The book's web site is here:

If you are interested in the book and have access to e-books from your library you might be able to borrow a copy. I borrowed the e-book through hoopla ( It is also available to borrow from but there was a waiting list when I checked there.

In the book Singer explains that you are just awareness. Thoughts and emotions and events around you are things you observe.

Singer uses the analogy of a lucid dream to explain how to experience yourself as just awareness.

In a lucid dream you know you are dreaming. In a regular dream you are immersed in the dream, you think it is real.

When you meditate or practice mindfulness, you know you are observing, you are mindful, you are lucid. But if you get distracted by thoughts and get carried away by them, you become immersed in them, you might notice after a while that you are thinking about something and not meditating you are not lucid. The thoughts have taken over your mind.

By practicing meditation and mindfulness you can learn to be mindful (lucid) all the time. You can be what you are, awareness observing.

If you allow yourself to experience emotional pain (Buddhists say "suffering") you will learn to let go of it and that leads to awakening: the end of suffering. But you have to confront your emotions from a lucid state of mind or you will not be able to let go. When you experience emotions and you are not lucid, you are immersed in the emotions, they will take over your mind, like distracting thoughts during meditation. You will see the event that caused the emotion as a problem needing a solution and you be focused on that. But when you experience emotions while you are lucid, you are not immersed in it, you see the emotion as something you are observing, not necessarily as a problem that has to be solved. Because you are detached, because the emotion has not taken over your mind, you can just relax and allow the emotion to exist until it naturally ends which is the way to let go of emotions - relax and allow them to exist until they cease naturally. When you are lucid, if there is a problem that needs to be dealt with, you will be able to do so without emotions clouding your judgement.

Allowing yourself to feel emotional pain can be difficult, but understanding that the process is beneficial can change your attitude and motivate you to embrace it so you can reap the benefits of letting go. You also quickly learn that most daily upsets are not too bad and that you can endure them quite easily. And if you observe the emotional pain from a lucid state you see emotions as something you are observing rather than a problem (that needs a solution).

Being lucid all the time is necessary because we are bombarded with stresses that can cause emotional upsets all day long. In order to be able to let go of unpleasant emotions as you encounter them, you have to be lucid all the time.

But even when we are lucid and are being just awareness observing, we still do not understand our true nature. Over a lifetime we have built up a "reality" in our mind with thoughts about who we are, what we are, how we relate to the world, how other people should act, what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is bad etc. etc. But this is not reality. It is just thought. To see beyond our self constructed reality we have to disassemble it. Allowing ourselves to experience emotional pain can help us disassemble this illusory reality. When things in our experience don't match our expectations, we feel threatened, we feel emotional pain. We protect our mental model of reality by pushing away pain or by clinging to our ideas, Every time we feel emotional pain it is telling us about a flaw in our model of reality. Emotional pain can help us to deconstruct the illusion of reality if we allow ourselves to experience the pain and let go of it because by doing that we are accepting that our mental model of reality is flawed and in time it will be so weakened by so many accumulated flaws that we will be able to see through it. That is awakening.

I have been trying to put this information into practice and I am finding it very helpful.

A form of meditation that would be a good compliment to the book is this:

In this type of meditation you first sit quietly and relax for a little while. Then begin to notice any thoughts that arise. Observe a thought but do not continue along in a train of thoughts. If there are no thoughts, just sit being aware of awareness. If you are not sure what "being aware of awareness" means, think any random word for example "automobile", when you are thinking it, you are observing a thought, when the thought is over, you are left being aware of awareness. If any unpleasant feelings arise go back to relaxing for a while and return to observing thoughts and awareness when you feel more at ease.
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When you observe everything that appears to your consciousness: sense perceptions, thoughts, emotions, various other kinds of feelings, impulses, and intentions, you may also notice the cause and effect relationships: sense perception - recognition - thought - emotion - impulse - intention - action. If you are immersed in this process, it seems like you are in control. But if you step back and just observe this process, it seems like it goes by itself. You see that when you are immersed, the "self" exists, but when you are just observing, there is no feeling of self. This is how the sense of self is produced and how, by observing the activity of he mind, you can learn to see reality without the filter of self. From this you realize that your inner reality is a creation of the mind and you are no longer attached to your emotions, you see they are not you or yours, and you no longer overreact to them.
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It doesn't have to be taught. It is intuitive. But people getting enlightened on their own doesn't fit the business model most meditation teachers.

In The Science of Enlightenment, a book written by Shinzen Young, Shinzen says that people can become enlightened gradually without knowing it.
He writes:

... in my experience as a teacher, enlightenment usually sneaks up on people. Sometimes they don't quiet realize how enlightened they've become over time because they have gradually acclimatized to it.

This intrigued me so I searched for more information on this. I found a file on the Shinheads facebook group, (Shinzen Enlightenment Interview.pdf) that discussed this in greater detail and I have included the relevant excerpt below.

What Shinzen describes seems to be that the effects of meditating over a long period of time produce the changes in a person that constitute enlightenment, whether you know it or not, whether or not you have the insight reported by people who experience sudden enlightenment.

Evidently, being released from the fetter of identity view is not necessarily something that has to be conscious - it does not necessarily require an insight.

If this is the case, then one can simply meditate and not worry about having any particular insight or crossing any particular milestone.

You can judge your progress and the effectiveness of your practice by your own observation as to how it helps you to live with increasing equanimity. If you find your equanimity is increasing over time, then you are probably doing it right.

Here is the excerpt from Shinzen Enlightenment Interview.pdf

However, for most people who’ve studied with me it doesn’t happen that way. Not suddenly. What does happen is that the person gradually works through the things that get in the way of enlightenment, but so gradually that they might not notice.
You remember that I said in traditional Buddhism it’s very significant that it’s formulated that something passes away and it’s not something that you get? So what typically happens is that over a period of years, and indeed decades, within that person the craving, aversion and unconsciousness --the mula kleshas (the fundamental “impurities”), get worked through. Because it’s gradual, they may not realize how much they’ve changed. As the mula kleshas get worked through they suffer less and the fundamental alienation between inside and outside diminishes. But because all this is happening gradually they’re acclimatizing as it’s occurring.

In acclimatizing they may not realize how far they’ve come. However, they often do notice it when “the doo doo hits the fan”. Like a major bereavement, a major illness like cancer, a serious injury, or their life is somehow threatened. Then they notice how everyone around them is freaking out and how much less they’re freaking out. Then the contrast becomes suddenly very evident. That’s when they would tend to notice it. That’s why I like telling the story about the samurai.

“This samurai went to the Zen temple on the mountain and lived there for many years. He didn’t seem to be getting anything out of the practice. So he said to the Master, ‘I think I need to leave. Nothing’s happening as a result of this practice’. So the master said ‘Okay. Go.’

As he was coming down the hill one of his former comrades, a fellow samurai, saw him in the tattered robes of a Buddhist monk –which is equivalent to a glorified beggar from a samurai’s point of view –and he said ‘how could you be so undignified to join the counter--culture of Buddhist beggars?’ and he spit on him. Now in the old days the samurais were extremely proud. Any insult to their personal dignity meant a fight to the death. So the monk who had formerly been a samurai just walked on and after he’d walked a certain distance, it occurred to him that not only did he not need to kill this guy, he wasn’t even angry.

As the story goes he turned around and bowed towards the mountain three times where he had practiced. He bowed in his recognition of all that he had worked through. He recognized he no longer needed to kill someone that had offended his dignity. He noticed how fundamentally he had changed as a human being.”
Of course, it’s not just samurai in 16th century Japan. The same things apply to 21st century North Americans. Maybe they’ve been practicing for 10, 20, or 30 years and it doesn’t seem that much has changed. And then something big happens and then they realize how different they’ve become compared to ordinary people. I’ll give you an example that happened just a few weeks ago. Someone who has been coming to retreats for quite a while went to have a biopsy to determine whether they had a serious cancer or not. While waiting for the results this person noticed they weren’t worried. Anyway, it turned out that the biopsy was negative. So all the unnecessary suffering that would’ve happened but didn’t, that was the effect of that person’s years and years of practice. It’s my impression that many more people have that gradual unfolding than have the sudden...