In May 2006, Johns Hopkins University published a paper on the effects of a single dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
It was controversial for a few reasons. Just 6 years earlier, the University was the first in the U.S. to receive regulatory approval to administer the psychoactive substance, and it still carries much of the stigma of when it was banned during the Nixon administration in the 1970’s.
The University acknowledged that it had been used for centuries in cultures across the world for religious purposes but up until that point, the effects of the substance were largely unknown to science.
Their discovery was incredible. When administered under the right conditions, psilocybin reliably caused experiences that were directly comparable to classic religious experiences where people encounter “God”.
The majority of participants rated the experience to be among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives, next to the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.
Participants were selected from a group of psychologically stable people who had never tried psychedelics before. They were given 30mg of psilocybin in a controlled, living-room like environment where they were asked to lie on a couch, close their eyes and direct their attention inward.
Study monitors accompanied participants and rated their behaviour throughout a session lasting eight hours, after which the participants filled out questionnaires assessing the experience. Individuals recorded some or sometimes all of the following experiences:
- A feeling of something greater than their personal self, or the fusion of this self with a larger whole.
- Experience of an encounter or unity with ultimate reality.
- Experience of oneness or unity with objects and/or persons perceived in their surroundings.
- Experience of the insight that “all is One”.
- Sense of being at a spiritual height.
- Sense of reverence and of experiencing something profoundly sacred and holy.
- Experience of amazement, ecstasy, and awe. Feelings of tenderness, gentleness, peace, tranquility, and joy.
- Loss of their usual sense of time, space, and awareness of where they were.
- Feeling that they could no do justice to the experience by describing in words, and that it would be difficult to communicate the experience to others who have not had a similar experience.
Many of these experiences are analogous to classic mystical experiences. One participant told of a conversation with God—who had appeared as golden streams of light—assuring them that everything that exists is perfect, even if their limited corporeal self couldn’t fully understand it.
Another participant said:
I could see many spiritual beliefs that I hold/held and linked them – a more cohesive and comprehensive spiritual landscape became apparent to me.
The majority of participants believed their experience was an encounter with ‘ultimate reality’; that they had perceived a reality that was more real than their everyday one, and still thought so two months later.
[I experienced] a reality that was clear, beautiful, bright and joyful… In short, this experience opened me up (gave me a tangible vision) of what I think is attainable every day.
A similar experience was had by the British author Aldous Huxley who ingested the psychedelic mescaline under supervision, and afterwards wrote The Doors of Perception (a classic in psychedelic literature). He wrote:
I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.
For the Johns Hopkins participants, the experience caused moderate to strong lasting changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning.
Following these incredible results, the study has gone on to spark a worldwide renewal in research into the profound effects of psychedelics.
Their ability to reliably cause such experiences in a laboratory setting will allow deeper scientific investigation of their causes and effects, and perhaps the mechanism of a ‘mystical’ experience.
How they work
As the science is so new (and as the brain is so complex), we only have the broadest idea of how psychedelics work.
The 2017 paper Classic Hallucinogens and Mystical Experiences: Phenomenology and Neural Correlates tries to work it out.
The substances seem to reduce activity in the ‘default mode network’, which is a group of connections in the brain that typically lights up when you’re pointing your attention inside yourself, rather than towards the outside world.
It’s believed to be responsible for your feeling of self; of being an individual.
When you take a psychedelic, its connections and oscillations temporarily change. You lose your sense of being an individual, and the sensation is called the “dissolution of the self” or “ego death.” But simultaneously, you gain a feeling of connectedness to everything outside who you are.
Psychedelics may also affect long-held biases and mental filters, allowing us to see things that have always been in front of us, but that we have unconsciously learned to ignore. Huxley calls the mind on psychedelics the ‘Mind at Large‘.
[I]n so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.
- Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell
This combination of ego death and the mind at large – may create this experience of seeing ‘ultimate reality’.
Psychedelics may be the first means to introduce the concept of ‘ultimate reality’ to science, as they produce relatively consistent and reliable results in a controlled laboratory setting.
Psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and medicine or the telescope is for astronomy.
But it’s unlikely that they’re only way to slow down the default mode network and have psychedelic-like experiences.
After the ban in the 1970’s the study of psychedelics came to a halt, and some scientists looked for alternative ways to induce the same effects. Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof is one of the more prominent. He developed a set of intense breathing exercises called “holotropic breathwork” which has had popular success.
The word ‘holotropic’ is a term that he coined, meaning “towards the whole”, or towards ultimate reality.
In some instances faster breathing does not induce any physical tensions or difficult emotions, but leads directly to increasing relaxation, sense of expansion and well-being, and visions of light. The breather can feel flooded with feelings of love and experiences of mystical connection to other people, nature, the entire cosmos, and God.
Meditation may also be an important tool in manifesting similar experiences, like the feeling of fusion between the self and something greater, a sense of experiencing something sacred and holy, and awe of all existence.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the brain scans of people in deep meditation and others that speak in tongues - people undergoing what he calls "mystical experiences".
He found that the parietal lobe, part of the default mode network, goes dark during the practice of Buddhist meditators as well as Franciscan nuns - who claim that prayer helps them feel at peace and at one with God.
People have been ingesting mushroom species containing psilocybin outside of science for centuries and as mentioned above, it grows naturally in most parts of the world.
Psychedelics, breathwork, and meditation may have inspired writings on concepts from different cultures around the world that may be more similar than they first appear.
Satori is a Japanese Buddhist term for awakening, "comprehension; understanding". It is derived from the Japanese verb satoru. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, satori refers to the experience of kenshō, "seeing into one's true nature". Ken means "seeing," shō means "nature" or "essence." Satori and kenshō are commonly translated as enlightenment, a word that is also used to translate bodhi, prajnaand buddhahood.
Satori means the experience of awakening ("enlightenment") or apprehension of the true nature of reality. It is often considered an experience which cannot be expressed in words.
Kenshō refers to the perception of the Buddha-nature or emptiness. While the terms have the same meaning, customarily satori is used to refer to full, deep experience of enlightenment (such as of the Buddha), while kenshō is used to refer to a first experience of enlightenment that can still be expanded. Distinct from this first insight, daigo-tettei is used to refer to a "deep" or lasting realization of the nature of existence.
According to D. T. Suzuki,
Satori is the raison d'être of Zen, without which Zen is not Zen. Therefore every contrivance, disciplinary and doctrinal, is directed towards satori.
This view is typical of Rainzai, which emphasizes satori. The Sōtō school rejects this emphasis, and instead emphasizes "silent illumination" through the practice of zazen.
Dennis Genpo Merzel states he had what he described as an "awakening experience" in 1971:
It was in February of that year, and I was 26 years old. My second serious relationship was ending, and I was feeling very confined and conflicted. I needed to get some space, so I went out to the Mojave desert for a three-day camping weekend with two friends. On the Friday, I hiked up a mountain alone. I knew nothing about meditation or spiritual practice. I was just sitting there, thinking about my life and the things going on. I felt I had gotten pretty screwed up for such a young age. I could see my VW camper, my home for the weekend, parked a few miles away. But at the same time, I was aware that my home was back in Long Beach, California. And a natural koan came to me: Where is home? All of a sudden, I had a kind of breakthrough. I felt myself fall away, and I became one with the cosmos, one with the universe, one with all things. I knew in that moment that wherever I am, that is home; home is everywhere. I also knew who I was, beyond description, but let’s call it Big Mind. That experience completely changed my life.
Wikipedia, Enlightenment in Buddhism
The English term enlightenment is the western translation of various Buddhist terms, most notably bodhi and vimutti. The abstract noun bodhi, the knowledge or wisdom, or awakened intellect, of a Buddha. The verbal root budh- means "to awaken," and its literal meaning is closer to awakening.
The term "enlightenment" was popularised in the Western world through the 19th century translations of Max Müller. It has the western connotation of general insight into transcendental truth or reality.
The Steps of the Buddha
Someone asked Buddha "Who are you?" And he replied "I am awake"
There have been many interpretations over the centuries of what ‘tathāgata-garba’ or ‘Buddha nature’ means. Some of them share traits with the concept of ultimate reality.
Wikipedia, Buddha nature
The basic idea of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra is the unity of the absolute and the relative:
All in One, One in All. The All melts into a single whole. There are no divisions in the totality of reality [...] [I]t views the cosmos as holy, as "one bright pearl," the universal reality of the Buddha. The universal Buddhahood of all reality is the religious message of the Avatamsaka-sutra.
In Chinese buddhism
[T]he Chinese Madhyamaka scholar Jizang (549–623 CE) sought to remove all ontological connotations of the term as a metaphysical reality and saw buddha nature as being synonymous with terms like "tathata," "dharmadhatu," "ekayana," "wisdom, '' "ultimate reality," "middle way" and also the wisdom that contemplates dependent origination [That all things arise in dependence upon other things.]
Jizang was also one of the first Chinese philosophers to famously argue that plants and insentient objects have Buddha nature, which he also termed true reality and universal principle (dao).
In the 20th century, the influential Chinese master Yin Shun drew on Chinese Madhyamaka to argue against any Yogacara influenced view that buddha nature was an underlying permanent ground of reality and instead supported the view that buddha nature teachings are just an expedient means.
the inherent nature that exists in all beings. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, enlightenment is a process of uncovering this inherent nature … The Buddha nature [is] identical with transcendental reality. The unity of the Buddha with everything that exists.
The founder of the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism, Dōgen Zenji, held that Buddha-nature was simply the true nature of reality and Being (Busshō 佛 性). This true nature was just impermanence, becoming and 'vast emptiness'. Because he saw the whole universe as an expression of Buddha-nature, he held that even grass and trees are Buddha nature.
Therefore, the very impermanency of grass and tree, thicket and forest is the Buddha nature. The very impermanency of men and things, body and mind, is the Buddha nature. Nature and lands, mountains and rivers, are impermanent because they are the Buddha nature. Supreme and complete enlightenment, because it is impermanent, is the Buddha nature.
The 19th/20th-century Nyingma scholar, Shechen Gyaltsap Gyurme Pema Namgyal, sees the Buddha nature as ultimate truth, nirvana, which is constituted of profundity, primordial peace and radiance:
Buddha-nature is immaculate. It is profound, serene, unfabricated suchness, an uncompounded expanse of luminosity; nonarising, unceasing, primordial peace, spontaneously present nirvana.
In discussing the inadequacy of modern scholarship on Buddha-nature, Sutton states, "One is impressed by the fact that these authors, as a rule, tend to opt for a single meaning disregarding all other possible meanings which are embraced in turn by other texts". He goes on to point out that the term tathāgatagarbha has up to six possible connotations. Of these, he says the three most important are:
- an underlying ontological reality or essential nature () which is functionally equivalent to a () in an sense,
- the which penetrates all beings (), which is functionally equivalent to brahman in an sense
- the womb or matrix of Buddhahood existing in all beings ), which provides beings with the possibility of awakening.
Of these three, Sutton claims that only the third connotation has any soteriological significance, while the other two posit Buddha-nature as an ontological reality and essential nature behind all phenomena.
Shamanism is a religious practice that involves a practitioner who is believed to interact with a spirit world through altered states of consciousness, such as trance. The goal of this is usually to direct these spirits or spiritual energies into the physical world, for healing or another purpose.
Mircea Eliade writes, "A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = 'technique of religious ecstasy'." Shamanism encompasses the premise that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. Shamans are said to treat ailments and illnesses by mending the soul. Alleviating traumas affecting the soul or spirit are believed to restore the physical body of the individual to balance and wholeness. Shamans also claim to enter supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community. Shamans claim to visit other worlds or dimensions to bring guidance to misguided souls and to ameliorate illnesses of the human soul caused by foreign elements. Shamans operate primarily within the spiritual world, which, they believe, in turn affects the human world. The restoration of balance is said to result in the elimination of the ailment.
Generally, shamans traverse the axis mundi [the connection between Heaven and Earth] and enter the "spirit world" by effecting a transition of consciousness, entering into an ecstatic trance, either autohypnotically or through the use of entheogens or ritual performances. The methods employed are diverse, and are often used together.
An entheogen ("generating the divine within") is a psychoactive substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context. Entheogens have been used in a ritualized context for thousands of years; their religious significance is well established in anthropological and modern evidences. Examples of traditional entheogens include: peyote, psilocybin and Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) mushrooms, uncured tobacco, cannabis, ayahuasca, Salvia divinorum, iboga, and Mexican morning glory.
Music and songs
Just like shamanism itself, music and songs related to it in various cultures are diverse. In several instances, songs related to shamanism are intended to imitate natural sounds, via onomatopoeia.
The drum is used by shamans of several peoples in Siberia. The beating of the drum allows the shaman to achieve an altered state of consciousness or to travel on a journey between the physical and spiritual worlds. Much fascination surrounds the role that the acoustics of the drum play to the shaman. Shaman drums are generally constructed of an animal-skin stretched over a bent wooden hoop, with a handle across the hoop.
In Christian theology, the beatific vision (Latin: visio beatifica) is the ultimate direct self communication of God to the individual person. A person possessing the beatific vision reaches, as a member of redeemed humanity in the communion of saints, perfect salvation in its entirety, i.e. heaven. The notion of vision stresses the intellectual component of salvation, though it encompasses the whole of human experience of joy, happiness coming from seeing God finally face to face and not imperfectly through faith (1 Cor 13:11–12). Islam Sunni Islam also has the idea of beatific vision. The Qur'an speaks of believers seeing Allah in paradise. In chapter 75, verses 22–23, it states "On that day, faces shall be radiant, gazing upon their Lord.". There is also a Hadith of Muhammad which says the following: Jarir bin `Abdullah Al-Bajali reported: We were sitting with the Messenger of Allah when he looked at the full moon and observed, "You will see your Lord in the Hereafter as you see this moon having no difficulty in seeing it." [Al-Bukhari, chapter 10 Hadith number 529] Shia Islam, however, is against this idea. Shiites believe that it's impossible to see God because if god can be seen then god has a form. And if god has a form then god needs the form and that can't be because god is absolute. This is also mentioned in Quran verses 153, Surahat An-Nisa: (so indeed they demanded of Musa a greater thing than that, for they said: Show us Allah manifestly; so the lightning overtook them on account of their injustice. Then they took the calf (for a god), after clear signs had come to them, but We pardoned this; and We gave to Musa clear authority) From
A mental breakdown A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment By BARBARA EHRENREICHAPRIL 5, 2014 MY atheism is hard-core, rooted in family tradition rather than adolescent rebellion. According to family legend, one of my 19th-century ancestors, a dirt-poor Irish-American woman in Montana, expressed her disgust with the church by vehemently refusing last rites when she lay dying in childbirth. From then on, we were atheists and rationalists, a stance I perpetuated by opting, initially, for a career in science. How else to understand the world except as the interaction of tiny bits of matter and mathematically predictable forces? There were no gods or spirits, just our own minds pressing up against the unknown. But something happened when I was 17 that shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle. Years later, I learned that this sort of event is usually called a mystical experience, and I can see in retrospect that the circumstances had been propitious: Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life. There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered. Of course I said nothing about this to anyone. Since I recognized no deities, and even the notion of an “altered state of consciousness” was unavailable at the time, I was left with only one explanation: I had had a mental breakdown, ultimately explainable as a matter of chemical imbalances, overloaded circuits or identifiable psychological forces. There had been some sort of brief equipment failure, that was all, and I determined to pull myself together and put it behind me, going on to finish my formal education as a cellular immunologist and become a responsible, productive citizen. It took an inexcusably long time for me to figure out that what had happened to me was part of a widespread category of human experience. Some surveys find that nearly half of Americans report having had a mystical experience. Historically, the range of people reporting such experiences is wide — including saints, shamans and Old Testament prophets as well as acknowledged nonbelievers like Virginia Woolf and the contemporary atheist writer Sam Harris. It is of course impossible to ascertain how much these experiences have in common. We may be comparing apples and asteroids. On the religious end of the spectrum, people have tended to describe their experiences as encounters with familiar deities or spirits, while nonbelievers — like some quoted by William James — are likely to speak of a more generic “living Presence.” Others write of something more akin to my own experience, which was wordless and profoundly unsettling. When the early 20th-century Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto surveyed the works of (mostly Christian) mystics for clues as to the nature of the “Other” they had encountered, he concluded that it was “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good.’ ” It was more like a “consuming fire,” he wrote, and “must be gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love and a sort of confidential intimacy.” Of course all such experiences can be seen as symptoms of one sort or another, and that is the way psychiatry has traditionally disposed of the mystically adept: The shaman was simply the local schizophrenic, Saint Teresa of Avila a clear hysteric. The Delphic oracles may have been inhaling intoxicants; all of the great Christian mystics showed clear signs of temporal lobe epilepsy. A recent paper from Harvard Medical School proposes that the revelations experienced by Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Paul can all be attributed to “primary or mood-disorder-associated psychotic disorders.” I suspect we would have more reports of uncanny experiences from ordinary, rational people if it were not for the fear of being judged insane or at least unstable. An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter. It was my scientific training, oddly enough, that eventually nudged me to consider this possibility. Sometime in middle age, when I had become a writer and amateur historian, I decided that the insanity explanation may have been a cop-out, that I could have seen something that morning in Lone Pine. If mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, as they have commonly been described, is it possible to find out what they are encounters with? Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena, internal to ourselves, but the merest chance that they may represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation. We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences? Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame. Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of “Living With a Wild God” and “Nickel and Dimed.” A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 6, 2014, on page SR8 of the New York edition with the headline: A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment. From
Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. -The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley Let me remind my readers that the term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interpret man's experiences of this quality. -Julian Huxley From
C.G. Jung used the word numinous to describe a mystical experience involving ‘higher dimensions’, as it avoids religious jargon.
Wikipedia, The Absolute
The Absolute is the concept of (a form of) Being which transcends limited, conditional, everyday existence
The Absolute, also represented through other concepts as the Source, Fountain or Well, the Centre, the Monad or One, the All or Whole, the Origin (Arche) or Principle or Primordial Cause, the Sacred or Holy or Utterly Other (Otto), the Form of the Good (Plato), the Mystery, the Ultimate, the Ground or Urground ("Original Ground"), is the concept of an unconditional reality which transcends limited, conditional, everyday existence. The manifestation, creation, of the Absolute has been described as the Logos or Word or World, the Ṛta or Ratio. It is sometimes used as an alternate term for the more commonly used God of the Universe, the Divine or the Supreme Being ("Utmost Being"), especially, but by no means exclusively, to express it in less personal and more impersonal representations. The concept of the Absolute may or may not (depending on one's specific doctrine) possess discrete will, intelligence, awareness, or a personal nature. It is sometimes conceived of as the source through which all being emanates. It contrasts with finite things, considered individually, and known collectively as the relative. This is reflected in the name's Latin etymology absolūtus which means "loosened from" or "unattached" (from a subject-object dualism).
One thing that is clear is that such a cognitive shift cannot come at a more important time in human history.
The reality of mass extinctions and climate change is often disconnected from our daily lives, even as our own consumption contributes to it.
Anything that builds a sense of connection and unity with the natural world is worth exploring.