A peculiar state of consciousness in which the individual discovers himself to be one continuous process with God, with the Universe, with the Ground of Being, or whatever name he may use by cultural conditioning or personal preference for the ultimate and eternal reality.Alan Watts, 1971
Mystical experiences have always been approached with a hint of wonderment by both laypeople and scientists. Thanks to advances in neuroscience and psychology, their mechanisms are finally being researched with robust empirical tools. Scientific publications now offer more tangible definitions and descriptions of their unique features. They are characterized by an open-minded state, a sense of belonging to something more important than ourselves, a feeling of timelessness, happiness, gratitude and deep inner peace. They also appear to be an effective catalyst in the treatment of anxiety, depression and addictions. Therapeutic application of methods that induce mystical experiences is getting more popular, while scientific discoveries in this field are rapidly multiplying. However, many of us still do not know what mystical experiences are and thus remain unaware of what they have to offer to our mental health.
A nation of mystics
Mystical experiences are probably best known to those of you familiar with theological literature. They are abundant in the accounts of prophets and saints with links to all major world religions. In Christianity, there are mystical accounts of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, who both claimed sudden feelings of exultation. Islam gave rise to the powerful works of Rumi and Saadi, which are filled with dramatic, paranormal events. Traditions in Judaism are strongly influenced by mystical sentiments in the writings of Maimonides. Kabbalists study mysticism in the context of Judaism. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam. Hindu and Buddhist meditators devote their lives to augmenting mystical states. These spiritual practices deepen the relationship with God, gods, spirits, Gaia, the world’s innate energy, or the One Pure Being– whatever you decide to call it.
Despite the frequency of such accounts, mystical experiences are not purely spiritual in nature and their neurological underpinnings go beyond any religious heritage. The presence of visions and voices of unexplained origin, religious exaltation or unprecedented changes in physical appearance are indeed exceptional. Religious interpretations do not do the phenomenon justice. Prophetic events that are strongly rooted in classical biblical encounters with God are detached from current scientific definitions of mystical experiences, which are far more common and far more attainable than most of us seem to think. In fact, it seems that the capacity to have them is deep-wired into our brains. In his book The Natural Mind, Andrew Weil explores numerous behaviours that are common among children, including the strong inclination for rocking or spinning, arguing that they are driven by a desire to alter consciousness. Intoxication is Ronald Siegel’s account of similar practices spread widely across the animal kingdom. Those findings have led numerous scientists – including Harvard University researcher Ralph Metzner and prolific scientific writer Michael Winkelmann – to the belief that achieving an altered, mystical state of mind is one of our primary human needs.
In the late 1970s, as a part of study based on the General Social Survey, Americans were asked a single question: Have you ever had the feeling of being close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself? Over a third of respondents answered ‘yes’. In its famous 1975 article titled “Are we a nation of mystics?”, The New York Times Magazine reported that the prevalence of people having mystical experiences during their lifetime was unexpectedly high. Even more surprisingly, over a decade later a follow-up study reported that 9 out of 10 Americans had had a mystical-type experience at least once in their lifetime, ranging from deja vu and clairvoyance, to spiritualism, numinous experience and extrasensory perception.
The mystical experience
According to Stephen Trichter, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist, the difference between spiritual and mystical experiences is that spirituality represents a belief-based relationship with something sacred, while mysticism refers to the conscious realization, awareness of and empirical union with an ultimate truth, reality or spirit.
Although the experience itself is unique, ineffable and highly subjective, its key elements seem to have a universal, intuitively identifiable character. The most in-depth philosophical treatise on mystical experiences was written in 1960 by Walter Stace. Stace assembled descriptions of mystical experiences from all available sources, and identified their core phenomenological features that are shared across every culture, tradition or belief system on the planet. In consonance with conjectures propagated by the famous writer and philosopher, Aldous Huxley, in his 1945 treatise The Perennial Philosophy, Stace synthesized all the key features of an immortal and universal undercurrent that links all spiritual legacies.
Its strongest feature is a sense of unity with everything that exists right now, has existed in the past, and will come to existence in the future. This ultimate, most authentic reality, which creates a feeling of complete union, has extrovertive and introvertive properties. Extroverted oneness emerges from an innate understanding of the deep connection with everyone and everything in our surroundings, sidestepping all apparent differences. Unity in an introverted context refers to the total disintegration of ego, loss of the sense of self, and blurring of all the boundaries of our individual identities. The introverted unity is ultimate and devoid of any content; it is also known as ‘the void’. When complete, the two dimensions of unity lead to enlightenment and a nirvana-like peace of mind.
In addition to the experience of oneness, Stace described six other dimensions of the mystical experience: sacredness, the feeling of experiencing something sacred or holy; noetic quality, the belief of encountering an ultimate reality that is more authentic than anything that is known to us from our ordinary everyday lives; positive mood, expressed through feelings of joy, ecstasy, peace, gentleness or admiration; ineffability, the conviction that words are unable to convey the essence and gravity of the experience; paradoxicality, awareness that by trying to explain this experience to someone who has never had it, one would need to describe coexistence of mutually exclusive states or concepts; and transcendence of time and space, the sensation that socially-accepted concepts of time and space are artificial constructs that play no role in true existence.
The benefits of mystical experiences
One of the first researchers of mystical experiences and the author of their most widely-used psychological measuring scale, Ralph Hood, claimed that these unique sensations and feelings set off cognitive processing mechanisms that leave a notable mark on our psychological make up. This mark is most prominently recognized as ‘disintegration of the boundaries of the Self’, or in other words, ‘ego dissolution’. In its most intense form, an individual ego is completely unified with the ultimate reality that feels more profound and more authentic than anything we’ve known before. This effect is recognized by many who have experienced it as deeply, authentically pleasant. Astonishingly, it is also commonly reported as one of the most meaningful, impactful experiences of one’s life.
Transcendence of normal, waking consciousness has long been a key part of traditional, shamanic and healing rituals. The phenomenon has been long recognized and appreciated for its ability to facilitate the processes of personal, communal and spiritual growth. More recent investigations in this field show it to be associated with broad aspects of general wellbeing. Though the experience itself is temporary in nature, its effects can lead to permanent cognitive and behavioural transformations. According to Hood’s early findings, individuals who have peak or mystical experiences in their life tend to be healthier overall than those who don’t. In the past couple of decades, those findings have been confirmed with numerous, rigorous studies, showing that mystical experiences lead to an increase in positive attitudes about life and self, reduced fear of death and dying, increased interest in pro-social behaviours, and an enhanced sense of meaning or empowerment.
Mystical experiences can even lead to changes in attributes that are commonly believed to be rather stable, like personality traits. Most prominently, mystical experiences have been shown to increase the trait of openness, which makes us more flexible and eager to welcome new experiences in our lives, favouring change over rigidity, fighting the sensation of being stuck. This has an obvious advantage for those of us who try to break unhealthy, detrimental habits ranging from negative thinking patterns all the way to dependent use of psychoactive substances. On a larger scale, these positive improvements in mood, attitudes and behaviour also directly counteract the global pandemic of cultural, spiritual and racial division.
Although mystical experiences can be attained by many of us, they are not child’s play, either. These experiences are strong, profound, world-shifting and as such require careful consideration, adequate preparation and thorough integration of the resultant cognitive and emotional effects. They should not be induced without the presence of someone who can provide support. Both researchers and clinicians in the field emphasize the importance of an appropriate set and setting: an open, non-judgemental approach that can fully devote attention to the experience at hand (set), as well as a safe, relaxed, peaceful environment with an experienced, entrusted guide (setting). Under such favourable conditions, transcendental states of consciousness that lead to peak or mystical-type experiences can be generated through meditation, prayer, sensory deprivation, shamanic rituals, trance music, specialized breath manoeuvres, hypnosis or, most reliably, consumption of a psychedelic compound. Because of all of the unique benefits listed above, they are also more and more commonly evoked in a therapeutic context.
Mysticism, psychedelics and mental health
Psychiatry faced a big change between the late 1950s and early 1970s, thanks to an avalanche of findings on the serotonin neurotransmitter and its role in the healthy functioning of the human brain. Soon after, substances that interacted with serotonin receptors were explored in the treatment of mental health conditions. One of the highly promising categories of these substances, which led to substantial improvements in mental and affective functioning, were 5-HT2A receptor agonists known as psychedelics.
Psychological measures have suggested that psychedelics – including LSD, psilocybin, ketamine, ayahuasca, ibogaine and MDMA – have the ability to reduce anxiety, increase motivation, enhance self-esteem and decrease cognitive biases. They also have the interesting effect of reducing negativity in autobiographical memory, by changing the interpretation of problematic events or failures from one of personal inability to a source of learning and self-improvement. This is becoming increasingly evidenced by recent empirical studies into psychedelics. “Basically, after ayahuasca, I feel like, my, my roots became important, or my family history and how shame has affected myself and my family,” reported one individual who took part in Adele Lafrance and Marika Renelli’s 2017 study into ayahuasca. “So I would say that there are patterns of shame that I’m now more attuned to in my family and I don’t look at my eating disorder as even my own expression of pain, I look at it as a family expression [of] shame.”
Despite the fact that for a number of decades research into psychedelics has been buried under a heavy load of stigma and drug policy restrictions, evidence shows that psychedelic-evoked mystical experiences lead to long-term, positive changes in mood, attitudes and behaviour. Among others, this manifests itself in their apparent value in treating various forms of addiction. For example, in a 2019 MDMA trial by William Barone et al., one participant described how the drug helped enable a change in their attitude towards alcohol: “I think what pushed me away from the alcohol was that the MDMA proved to me that if you want something to help you, it helps you continuously, not just for a moment and then the next moment you are feeling bad. The study helped me see that.”
Already back in 1977, in their famous book The Human Encounter with Death, Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax reported that mystical experience was an integral part of the psychedelic therapeutic effect. In their writings, the pair recount their experiences of providing LSD-assisted therapy to patients suffering from end-of-life anxiety. One of those patients was Matthew, who suffered from incurable cancer. Following his LSD session, the authors wrote:
“All Matthew could communicate was his global feeling about the day. He felt that the experience was unbelievably beautiful; he had never experienced anything like that in his whole life. It was ‘being in a warm cocoon, surrounded by unending love; feeling helpless, but happy and safe.’ The most powerful experience was lying on the mattress with [his wife] Deborah, embracing her, and feeling that he was melting into her. As Matthew recounted this they were both very moved and cried together.”
Mystical therapies today
Findings on the long-term, beneficial outcomes of mystical experiences that are produced during psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy or other structured, psychedelic-based treatments continue to pile up. Recent experimental investigations are more robust than those early studies, and the results more critically evaluated. This is partially due to improvements in scientific practice and partially due to shifts in social and political attitudes towards psychedelics since the strict scheduling of psychoactive substances that started in 1970. Today, psychedelic research takes place only at top global scientific centres, predominantly under strict, randomized, double-blind conditions, where neither the participant nor the researcher know who has received the drug and who has received a placebo. In addition to these strict methodologies, technological advancements that include fMRI and PET imaging allow for a more objective and thorough investigation of psychedelic-evoked alterations of consciousness. While we are closer than ever to understanding the astonishing, mind-altering mechanisms at a physiological and molecular level, scientific reports in the field continue to emphasize the role that the inexplicable, subjective, mystical nature of the psychedelic journey plays in treatment outcomes.
Between 2006 and today, Roland Griffiths of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine – one of the most established researchers in this field – has conducted a series of clinical trials with the use of psilocybin. Griffiths and his colleagues showed that between half and three quarters of participants achieve a full mystical experience after ingesting 20-30mg of psilocybin. A similar fraction reports these to be in the top five if not the single most personally meaningful or spiritually significant experiences in their lives. Importantly, these experiences were associated with substantial positive changes in attitudes and behaviour, which were reported by both the participants themselves as well as community observers, even 14 months after the session. Clinical benefits were also reported, with a decrease in depression and anxiety scores as measured by the patient and the clinician. In his 2016 study on the use of psilocybin in treating end-of-life anxiety, Griffiths concluded that: “Consistent with previous findings, [mystical] experiences on session days predict long-term positive changes in attitudes, mood, behavior, and spirituality.”
Similar results, which link the intensity of a mystical experience with positive effects in healthy volunteers as well as clinical cohorts, also exist for other psychedelic substances, including LSD, MDMA and ayahuasca. Researchers often note that increased effectiveness of psychedelic psychotherapy is directly correlated with the strength or intensity of the mystical experience it produced. According to Prashanth Pushpanathan, a renowned Australian psychiatrist and the Neuropsychiatry Fellow Advisor to Mind Medicine Australia: “Mystical experiences, as mysterious, ethereal and poorly understood as they are, seem to imbue a touch of magic and access to a power greater than oneself; spiritual constructs often absent in these empirical times. A sense of meaning and guidance from a higher power that this brings appears to invoke greater self efficacy, sense of purpose and motivation, all integral to enacting psychological change.”
The future of mysticism-based therapies
The future success of psychedelic treatment and other altered state of consciousness therapies that produce profound, mystical-type experiences, is highly dependent on approval both at the governmental as well as social level. This may mean shifting our understanding of what successful mental health treatment process entails. In psychiatry, pharmaceuticals are used in order to regulate a patient’s emotional state, to reinstitute the average level of functioning, so that any problems or symptoms can be more successfully managed, mitigated, or – ideally, though less frequently – cured in the meantime. The way psychedelic substances work is quite the opposite: they enhance emotions, expand their range and make us more susceptible to them. Though this may seem counter-intuitive and is certainly at odds with objectives of psychopharmacology, it is a therapeutically valid process that promotes facing our challenges in order to cure the pain once and for all, instead of merely easing it for the time being.
When we consider those mechanisms, it becomes clear that psychedelic substances, more than any other psychiatric drug available to us today, resonate with the goals and assumptions of psychotherapy. This much seems clear to patients who have undergone such treatment. “I just think it would have been several more years of painful maybe terrible therapy that went nowhere,” said one of the participants who took part in Barone et al.’s 2019 MDMA trial. “I feel like this therapy really helped me get past the tears and get right to the problem and several other problems I didn’t know were related to the feeling.”
This perspective points to the way in which the challenging experiences associated with psychedelics also serve an important purpose in the process of healing, so long as they are administered and supervised appropriately. Such appropriate application, generally referred to as psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (PAP), entails three distinct phases: preparation, dosing and integration. During numerous preparation and integration sessions, experienced mental health professionals develop a unique, individually-suited psychotherapeutic framework, which ensures the maximum safety and potency of the six to eight hour long dosing session, when the drug is administered.
Phenomenologically, experiences evoked by psychedelic substances are often described as cosmic, mystical, oceanic, peak, transpersonal or transcendental. They occasion a sense of understanding of the metaphysical meaning of existence, which ignites the desire and determination to make significant changes in life. What’s more, it equips the individual with a sense of self-efficacy and trust that said change is entirely within reach. For those of us who experience addiction, anxiety or depression – for whom the fixation, the detrimental habit, the unchanging state of consciousness, or the endless streak of negative feelings are an inescapable source of great suffering – this seems like an unparalleled opportunity.
“Przekrój” Magazine advises all readers to comply with local drug laws and seek professional medical advice prior to exploring any mystical and psychedelic-induced experiences.
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