Instant Satori Machines and the Royal Road to Bliss

In the 1960s many people were extremely interested in experiencing peak states. For many, psychedelics were the quickest and most reliable mind expansion technique. But drugs, while powerful and effective state-change tools, had drawbacks. They were illegal; the state changes they produced were long-lasting and durable, which made it next to impossible to change back into ordinary brain states on demand; and they also had unknown long-term effects on health. So, many people were eager to find a “drugless high,” or some way to expand consciousness without the drawbacks of psychedelic drugs.

Among others, the Beatles, the most popular and influential rock group of the era, had become followers of a guru who taught them meditation. They began singing its praises as a way of reaching heightened states of consciousness without drugs. The guru appeared on the Johnny Carson show, wearing his white robes, giggling, and holding a flower. Meditation was In. Millions of people began trying to meditate. Millions of people were disappointed to find that meditation took practice and discipline, and did not instantly catapult them into enlightenment.

A look at EEG tracings made it clear that meditators produced a lot of alpha waves. Some young researchers developed a type of EEG that was “tuned” to respond to alpha waves by producing a beeping sound. They called this process biofeedback—that is, feeding back to the subject information from his or her own body. When people used EEG biofeedback, they could quickly learn to produce alpha waves simply by doing things that produced a beeping sound, such as sitting with their eyes closed, in a relaxed, passive state.

The researchers noticed that people who went through this alpha biofeedback training process experienced interesting changes—they became more calm and relaxed in their daily lives, they tended to give up such habits as smoking and heavy drinking, and they learned how to produce alpha waves at will, even when not hooked up to the biofeedback system.

This was exciting. Some researchers even suggested that the alpha state was synonymous with meditation. This was Big News, and the mass media soon latched onto it. Sensational stories about “instant nirvana” and “mechanical meditation” claimed that the alpha state was not only the same thing as meditation, but it could also be a quick cure for stress, one without all the mystic voodoo and spiritual trappings that most people associated with meditation. As research psychologist Joe Kamiya, who was then the pioneer investigator of alpha feedback, remembers it, “a surprisingly large number of people seemed to conclude that alpha would be the royal road to bliss, enlightenment, and higher consciousness. Nirvana now, through feedback.”

Sales of “alpha machines” boomed. Thousands of people sat around learning to get into alpha. Thousands of people got into alpha and found it was calm, relaxed, passive, and, ultimately, not all that interesting. Because it was like just sitting there doing nothing, just . . . being there. And so thousands of alpha training devices went up on the shelf in the top of closet and began gathering dust.

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