The Center helps students and community members attain practical points on the spectrum with instruction and events designed to help improve attention, engage students and teachers, deal with chronic pain, become better leaders, and improve communication.
“We use a variety of physiological measurements and self-reporting to get a sense of impact,” Germano said. “That way we have objective data to report when we make decisions.”
Since its opening in 2012, the Center has seen a surge in popularity among students and community members. “Demand and interest far outstrips our capacity,” he said, citing one 240-person course that filled up in just a few days. What might be the fastest enrolling class at the university covers the history of Tibetan Buddhist meditation with its scientific and non-religious applications and integrates secular meditation practices one day a week.
“It demonstrates an appetite for learning that is not just didactic,” Germano said, he thinks students want their college experience to connect all the dots. “Of course there are practical things like how to use instruments in a lab, but students want these things to be an integrated practice—a process of discovery of self, reality, and the world.”
Germano explained that many contemplative moments are familiar to almost everyone: epiphanies, for example, or getting into “a flow” while working or driving. In tense situations, he said, pausing a moment to consider your options is another type of contemplation that can have a profound impact. But most people don’t try to understand where these insights come from.
“We don’t usually see our bodies as sources of knowledge. It impinges on us as a source of need: I need food! I need sex!” he said. “So we respond. ‘I’ll get you some food. I’ll get you some sex.’ And then it goes away. That’s different from thinking, ‘I want to understand you. I’m not just going to use you in an instrumentalist fashion. I want to understand you and see what can unfold from that process of self-understanding.’”
Some practices that the Center teaches to increase self-awareness are yoga, meditation, visualization, breath, attention focus, and posture. As Germano said, integrating new practices can help us create different outcomes, ones that generate the kind of world we want to be in. I was reminded of Lasky’s comment that “once you’re self-aware, you realize everything that you do causes something to happen, and once you become aware of everything you do, you realize you have the power to affect the future based on what you’re doing now.”
But, Germano said, most of us are just beginning to find ways to engage with these ideas. He drew a parallel to our limited understanding: “Think of an illiterate person who sees a white piece of paper with black marks, and watches us acquiring bodies of knowledge from—what? What are we doing, and how are our minds transforming? Self-awareness is similar. If you’re going to become literate in your body, your emotions, your awareness, how could you know what possibilities might unfold with that newly acquired capability?”
After Lasky had his spiritual awakening, he said the courses affiliated with the Contemplative Sciences Center, like yoga and Buddhist meditation, did little to satisfy his spiritual curiosity.
“I was very much in this reality, but not in school,” he said. “In terms of the classes the Center offers, there are a lot of things that departments or universities don’t want to endorse because they’re too controversial, I guess. You don’t get the full spectrum or information because they’re going to teach you as much as they feel is comfortable or appropriate.”
In contrast, The Monroe Institute in Nelson County is a research and educational facility dedicated to widely applicable methods of expanding meditative consciousness. Founded by Bob Monroe, the broadcasting executive who brought cable television to Charlottesville and had an out-of-body experience while testing experimental audio patterns, the institute offers workshops to those interested in altering brain states—expanding consciousness—through sound. Bob Monroe’s stepdaughter, Nancy, is an astrologer married to Joe McMoneagle, and I paid a visit to the three-building campus on her first day as president and executive director of her stepfather’s famous project.
“What my stepfather found was that by combining certain sounds, like binaural beats and frequency following response, he could actually elicit different states of consciousness.”
McMoneagle, a radiant blonde with blue eyes, sat back in her chair and smiled. “For example, mind awake/body asleep, feeling like you’re in a totally expanded state, like you’re more than just here, in a state where there is no time, and on and on into higher states of consciousness. Like getting into states without drugs or alcohol. He termed them focus levels.”
I thought of Lasky on his 10-day meditation retreat, the places on the spectrum he might have visited. “Are out-of-body experiences one of those focus levels?”
McMoneagle shook her head. “Some people think they need to be out of body that in order to get information from ‘out there,’ but it’s actually in here.” She placed her hand over her sternum. “My husband talks about the brain like an interface mechanism between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ We use it because it helps us define and articulate what is going on, but it’s more than physical matter.”
For those skilled in remote viewing, like her husband, McMoneagle said, “you have to get really, really quiet.” Trance-like meditation—the same described by Oliver in the Jerhoam sessions—sets the stage for astral projection and allows consciousness to move beyond the brain. Though such abilities are rare, less spectacular skills, including heightened awareness, deeper sleep, and a sense of expanded mind, are available to everyone.
“That’s the beauty of this,” McMoneagle said. “It doesn’t matter what religion somebody is, or what their belief systems or political beliefs are. Everybody has access to this non-physical awareness.”
She paused and opened her hands.
“Suspend disbelief that all you are is physical matter. Just consider it for the time you’re here and then you can let it go,” she said.
Harte and I met again for dinner in a UVA dining hall. Over a plate of peach cobbler, I told her what I’d learned since we last spoke. She seemed excited that I was connecting the dots between the different sources I’d interviewed.
“It’s like this,” she said. “I think religions and different practices are amazing tools to explore one aspect of spirituality. For me, though they don’t mean it to be spiritual, DOPS is another fantastic resource to look at what’s going on from a scientific and academic perspective. And tarot cards, astrology, and psychics— I’m not going to disregard amazing new souls and friends because I disagree with one aspect of those tools. I’m new to it, so I’m open to everything. And there’s something beyond the tools that I’m trying to get at.”
Lasky hopes that the Society for Awakening Souls will help students continue to investigate these questions. Next year, he said, they will use the meditation techniques they’ve developed to explore deeper practices, and they’ll continue to organize interactive events, like giving away free hugs during winter finals. Along the way, they’ll explore consciousness on their own, but together, turning inward to push themselves outward.
“I believe, and I think most everyone agrees, that the consciousness of the Society is greater than the consciousness of any one person,” Lasky said. “Once you think about it, it’s obvious. All the people in the world are creating reality, creating society. That makes it easier to think of a universal consciousness that is driving the world.”
In my own course of soul searching, I have been torn between practical needs (money, job security, etc.) and a desire to follow the path of self-awareness no matter where it leads. After all this research, I’m inclined to agree with Oliver’s belief that spiritual yearning has its roots in universal consciousness.
“The soul,” Oliver said, “is aware of itself existing as a pure eternal spirit that has within it all of the universe, and it certainly has access to everything in the universe. I believe that. It comes from existence or God or source—whatever you want to call it.”
Over a plate of peach cobbler, Harte and I, a decade apart in age, were coming to the same basic conclusions.
“We are more than the body. It’s so apparent and obvious to me,” she said.
Harte leaned forward and put her fist on the table as if to pound it.
“People might disagree and think that there’s nothing beyond the material world, that it’s not fine-tuned, it’s random. And maybe I’m crazy, and maybe I’ll die and I’m wrong, but my life is going to be a happy beautiful thing where I travel and experience new cultures and expand my consciousness.” She looked at me, her brown eyes shining. “And I’d rather have lived my life thinking that the universe is based on love. That there is something more than meets the eye.”