On mystical experiences

I have been interested in mystical experiences for a long time. Growing up in India, surrounded by religion, and especially religions that make ‘enlightenment’ a core of any person’s sense of spirituality, it is hard to avoid hearing about the mystical experience. Buddhism and Hinduism deal with the transcendence of ego, or sense of self and a merging or unification with the, for lack of a better word, the Universe. The land is littered with sages and seers who are honoured because they have crossed from the mundane everyday life into one that where the person is described as one that is one with the Universe.
I had always assumed that the only way one could achieve this state of being was through the practice of religious/ spiritual techniques. In Hinduism, Buddhism and even Taoism, the goal is to free yourself of earthly cares by realizing the self’s infinite nature by a series of devices such as koans and meditation. In Hindu mythology, sages often communed with the gods after performing a range of austerities that would often go on for hundreds of years. This can be considered as the ‘religious route’ to mysticism. I believe that once a person has had a mystical experience, he/she usually tries to make sense of it in terms of the pre-existing religious worldview that the person grew up with. Therefore a Christian mystic would have visions of angels, whereas the Hindu mystic would be visited by his or her own gods.
However mystical experiences are common all over the world. I read a book called Supernatural, written by Graham Hancock, in which he makes the case that all the world’s religions, as well as the religious thoughts of early civilizations had their roots in consciousness altering substances such as psychoactive drugs. I don’t believe he was the first to propose this; it is merely the first book about this phenomenon that I have read. This can be considered as the ‘psychoactive route’ to mysticism. The best example of this that I can find to show that psychoactive substances can lead to a mystical experience is that of Alan Watts. Alan Watts has been a great inspiration to me. His book, called ‘The Book’, is a delightful introduction to eastern thought for the western reader. It is weird that despite having been born in India, I still needed a westerner’s account to get me to appreciate eastern thinking properly. In one of his essays, Watts describes the use of psychoactive substances to train the mind to access the mystical state. He reported that after a while, he no longer needed the aid of the psychoactive substance in order to do so. Of course, there are thousands of tribes and cultures that incorporate the use of such substances into their spiritual landscape. Some examples include the use of Ayahuasca in Brazilian shaman ceremonies, and peyote in Mexican culture. I once visited a couple of museums devoted to pre-columbian art and I noticed several ‘smoking’ pipes used by the shamans of the pre-columbian cultures in order to induce the spiritual experience. However, like Alan Watts, I believe that these substances help only when the person using them is already of a religious/spiritual frame of mind.
The third route to mysticism is more uncertain. Eckhart Tolle, who’s book ‘The power of now’ basically deals with the attainment of transcendence, describes how he was undergoing a really rough stage in his life – depression, thoughts of suicide, desperation- and suddenly underwent a massive epiphany that led him to an understanding of an other state of consciousness. This can be considered as the ‘brain crunch route’ to the mystical experience. I suspect that this route is the result of a massive ‘rewiring’ of the brain, a result of extreme stress in some cases, and a spontaneous switch in others. I think that this route is fairly common, but if the person is religious, then the experience becomes subsumed within the framework of the person’s existing religion. Simply from his writings, I now think that the author Richard Bach went through something like this. He started out writing stories of planes and flying (eg: Biplane), and starting with ‘One’, ended up writing more and more mysticism influenced books. The best example, however, comes from the incredible story of the brain scientist Jill Taylor. In this talk, which is a must see, she describes how she went through a stroke caused by a hemorrhage in her brain. She says that since the left and the right hemispheres operate differently, the closing down of the left hemisphere freed her to experience consciousness through the right hemisphere, and by her description (and her assertion) sounds like every other description of the mystical experience I’ve ever read.
Many authors who talk about the mystical experience, or indeed just about spirituality, emphasize the potentially destructive nature of mental chatter. Mental chatter is the ongoing dialogue we have with ourselves all the time. Mental chatter apparently helps us to ‘edit’ the world, so that we don’t get overwhelmed by all the sensory input. While we benefit from the editing of the Universe, we also tend to get caught up in it, in a manner similar to the way we consider a photograph without considering the landscape that it represents. By forgetting that we are indeed editing the world, we become more and more reliant on the mental chatter to explain the Universe to us. According to Jill Taylor, it is the left hemisphere of the brain that is responsible for this editing, while the right hemisphere is responsible for the actual acquisition of experiences. Jill says that since her left hemisphere was affected by the stroke, she was in a totally silent brain for the first time in her life, and this led her to experience the universe with the right hemisphere, which is all about the present, free of editing. The sense of now, the present, free of constraints, free of any boundary between self and other- the essence of a mystical experience.

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