Changed in the Blink of an Eye III: Mystical Experience and Religious Conversion
August 31st, 2015
“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of men when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers… This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace, which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men”(Harvey, 1996).
These are the words of Black Elk, a famous Native American medicine man. His words highlight the interconnectedness of individual well-being and humanity as a whole. This peace Black Elk speaks about is often associated with spirituality across different cultures. Apostle Paul speaks of “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.”(Philipians 4:7 NIV) There is a transcendent quality to this state of being derived from the feeling of connection with the sacred. Black Elk outlines the domino effect of intra-person inner peace, rippling into person-to-person encounters and extending even further to nation-to-nation relations. Gandhi’s popular quote “be the change you seek” has special resonance here. Every individual has the capacity to produce powerful far reaching effects in the society they live in, so the more people who possess this sense of peace the better off humanity is in general. These transformations of consciousness we are examining tend to bring experiencers to a sense of our shared humanity, unconditional love and interconnectedness. The nature and benefits of transformations of consciousness and the potential positive ripple effect they might have is the underlying theme of these series.
In the previous post we examined Near-death experiences in detail and in this post we will now look into two other types of transformative experiences-mystical experience(natural and chemically-induced) and religious conversion(spiritual transformation).
William James, in his seminal work Varieties of Religious Experience categorizes an experience as mystical if it possesses four characteristics;
• Ineffability: The experience cannot be adequately explained using words. “The Way that can be named is not the true Way.”
• Noetic quality: There is a sense of insight or “knowing” that occurs. The experience is often described as a revelation or an illumination of ultimate truth or reality
• Transiency: These states do not last long although the memory of them remains extremely vivid after.
• Passivity: Although these experiences might be brought on by deliberate actions, once underway the experience seems to unfold on its own, independent of the experiencer’s effort.
In addition to these properties, Happold(1963) added three more characteristics;
• Consciousness of the oneness of everything
• A sense of timelessness
• True Ego: A sense of a greater, more stable expansive self than our ordinary egoic identity
These qualities define the mystical experience. The experience is not necessarily religious, in fact, a great number of reported mystical experiences have no religious connotations. Some experiences are triggered by the beauty of nature and others involve art, but the theme of transcendent unity and one-ness remains the same.
Conflict requires dualism, that is, opposing sides. The “us versus them” mindset lies at the source of our relational problems, from wars to individual quarrels and even our relationship with nature, the planet and other animals. This divisive perspective has served us from a biological perspective ensuring the survival of our genetic legacy. But as we have seen, it comes with a heavy price. What the mystical experience accomplishes is that it dissolves the line between object and subject, the “I” that observes and the thing that is observed become one and the same. From that place, harmonious existence is a greater possibility. Jesus emphasized the commandments to “love the Lord your God with all your heart… and to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30 NIV) as the greatest commandments. Several other times in the New Testament, embodying this type of love is presented as the defining characteristic of a follower of Christ. The laws against harming others by stealing or killing are redundant when one loves the other as self. This feeling of oneness when extended to the natural world also creates more conscientious living as depicted by another Native American leader, Smohalla, “You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s breast?”
The realizations attained in mystical experience, whether or not the experience is associated with any particular religion, seems to resonate with core elements of every major religion. Near-death experiences, we have already discussed, bring about a deeper conviction of the significance of the golden rule. The same applies for mystical experiences as a whole.
Mystical experiences, as mentioned earlier may be triggered by a variety of practices and events. But research has shown they can also be triggered by hallucinogenic drugs. Ancient tribal societies around the world have often used certain plants or fungi to experience altered states which usually result in some sort of mystical experience. However in the 20th century science began to study the effects of these plants. In a famous double-blind study commonly known as the Good Friday experiment, some religious scholars from the Harvard Divinity school were given psilocybin and asked to listen to a sermon (Pahnke, 1966). A large number of them reported having a deep spiritual experience. Those that did were asked to fill out questionnaires designed to measure mystical experiences. The results were indistinguishable from non drug-induced mystical experiences. 25 years later a follow up study found that those subjects who reported mystical experiences still felt the experience was one of the most significant events of their lives (Doblin, 1991). Other studies have shown that psilocybin, the active substance in the mushrooms, when inducing a mystical experience might permanently increase a person’s openness to new experience. Openness to new experiences is one of the big five personality traits often considered fixed at age 30. The study suggests that the experience produced by this chemical can change a fundamental part of an individual’s identity. However, due to the excessive abuses of hallucinogenic drugs especially from the 60s, research with them is extremely difficult to authorize as these substances are illegal. But we are seeing some promising research being done, especially with the terminally ill, as these experiences seem to reduce fear of death and help them cope with their illnesses (Grob, et al., 2010).
Religious Conversion and Spiritual Transformation
This is another frequently occurring experience. A person may convert to a different religion as a result of a near-death experience or a mystical one, however we are looking at a conversion experience as a separate phenomenon. The APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality groups religious conversion under the broader category of spiritual transformation. Spiritual transformation is defined as an internalized shift in the way the person relates to the sacred. This is not to be mistaken for mere religion switching which is simply a change in external religious affiliation. Conversion experiences are often reported with a sense of things seeming new, even everyday objects seem infused with meaning and sacredness (James, 1902). Experiencers report feeling completely changed in fundamental ways, hence the Christian expression being “born again” to describe the feeling of a new identity that emerges from this experience.
Research on personality change brought about by spiritual transformation utilizes a three-level framework (Sandage & Moe, 2013). The first and most basic level deals with the big five traits; openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The degrees to which individuals possess each of these traits are typically considered fixed by the age of 30. Studies on conversion experiences suggest that conversions do not alter the individual on this level of personality. The second more complex level of personality involves goals, values, motivations, coping strategies and attachment style. Spiritual transformations significantly alter this level. Experiencers’ values change as do their goals and how they deal with life situations. The third level is the life narrative. This refers to our sense of meaning, our beliefs and overall perspective on life. Spiritual transformations have the most significant impact on this level of personality. Recall the earlier definition of spiritual transformation as a shift in the way we relate to the sacred. Essentially the conclusion is that spiritual transformations/conversion experiences do not seem to alter who we are on a fundamental level, but they change the ways we adapt and relate to the world and the sense of meaning we derive from life in general. These effects are usually beneficial, resulting in more functional ways of living.
On this journey, we have explored near-death experiences, mystical experiences and spiritual transformations. There are more than a few similarities between these experiences and the wide varieties of people who experience them suggest all humans have the capacity for these experiences. Keeping these points in mind, coupled with the beneficial effects of these altered states, these phenomena suggest some profound implications. In the next blog post we will round up by discussing what those implications are.
Doblin R. (1991). “Pahnke’s “Good Friday Experiment”: a long-term follow-up and methodological critique” . Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 23 (1): 1–25. (1991).
Grob CS, Danforth AL, Chopra GS, et al. Pilot Study of Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety in Patients With Advanced-Stage Cancer. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(1):71-78. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.116
Happold, F.C. (1963). Mysticism: A study and an anthology. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.
Harvey, A. (1996). The Essential Mystics: Selections from the World’s Great Wisdom Traditions. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
James, W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
MacLean KA, Johnson MW, Griffiths RR. Mystical Experiences Occasioned by the Hallucinogen Psilocybin Lead to Increases in the Personality Domain of Openness. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England). 2011;25(11):1453-1461. doi:10.1177/0269881111420188.
Pahnke WN. (1966). Drugs and Mysticism. International Journal of Parapsychology 8 (2): 295–315.
Sandage, S.J., & Moe, S.P. (2013). Spiritual experience: Conversion and transformation. In K.I. Pargament (Ed.), APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality 1. (pp. 407-422) Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.