Monday, March 21, 2011

Trance and Religious Experience

I'm still reading Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999), and blogging about what I find interesting in the book. Momen describes common features of the experience of trance or mystical ecstacy:

  1. Those who enter states of trance or ecstacy report the experience of a monist state (i.e. when the 'me' and 'not-me' division in the world breaks down and they experience an intense sense of unity with Reality). Trance or deep meditation produces a state that appears to correspond in many respects to the 'infantile state' (Piaget), the 'state of hyper- or hypo-arousal' (Fischer), or 'deautomatization' (Deikman). These states result, as described above, in a breakdown of subject--object differentiation. The self and the world around become merged. A monistic state is experienced.
  2. They report the phenomenon of the differing passage of time. Those who have an intense religious experience often claim that time stood still or passed very slowly during this. This, again, was found by Fischer to be a phenomenon associated with altered states of consciousness, hyper- or hypo-arousal.
  3. They report that their intense religious experience is ineffable (its reality cannot be communicated by words). It can only be understood by another who has also experienced the state. This phenomenon can [...] be explained on the basis of state-bound knowledge and meaning. The experiences of a person at extremes of hyper- and hypo-arousal only have meaning in those states. The experiences cannot easily be communicated once the person has returned to the level of everyday life.
  4. They report unusual perceptions: perceptions of infinite energy, dazzling light and so on. In states of altered consciousness, controlled analytical thought is absent. The subject's attitude is one of receptivity to stimuli. There is heightened attention to sensory pathways. All sensations are therefore experienced more vividly. It may also be that psychic phenomena (such as tension, conflict or repression) will be perceived by being translated via the relatively unstructured sensations of light, colour or movement.
  5. They report a feeling of reality associated with the mystical experience. Those who have had intense religious experiences often assert that they do not need external evidence for their reality, because of the intense 'feeling if reality' experienced during the state. In fact, however, this intense 'feeling of reality' has no connection with an objective judgment of reality. It may, for example, be experienced in dreams. On the other hand, objective reality may on occasion be deprived of the 'feeling of reality'. This occurs, for example, in the brief feelings of depersonalization (where on feels as though one's self is unreal) or derealization (where on feels as though the world around is unreal) that most of us experience from time to time (often associated with déjà vu and other similar phenomena). During the early childhood stages of individual development, the 'feeling of reality' becomes fused with the objects of the outside world. In states of altered consciousness, however, the process of deautomatization breaks this link. The 'feeling of reality' can then become linked to the feelings and ideas that enter awareness during this state. The stimuli and images of the inner world become thus endowed with the 'feeling of reality'.

    An additional reason for this 'feeling of reality' results from the process of deautomatization. Due to this, stimuli are no longer systematized and selected before being presented to conscious thought. Therefore all stimuli present themselves equally strongly to the consciusness, which is only able to focus on one unselectively. That one stimulus therefore has none of its features attenuated by subcortical processing. It also has the 'feeling of reality' attached to it and so it appears with a vividness unlike anything that is experienced in ordinary life.
  6. Lastly, it should not surprise us if the mystic describes his or her world as being outside the bounds of reason or not attainable by intellect and analysis. This is to be expected because, as we have noted, in moving away from the level of everyday experience, we are moving away from the realm in which Aristotelian logic and intellectual analysis function.
(Pp. 177 - 178.)

That's an interesting checklist for anyone who has ever had a strange (religious) experience.

Momen notes the "chicken and egg quandary" with regard to the religious experience and the truth-claims of the religion:

Do Eastern religions meditate because it helps them to perceive reality as they consider it really is; that is, in monistic mode? Or do they see reality in monistic mode because they meditate? Similarly, do Western religions emphasize such acts as prayer and ritual worship because they help the believer to see the reality of the theistic mode? Or do they tend to see reality in a theistic way because of the activities of prayer and ritual worship? (P. 180.)

I don't really see that as being a quandary myself, but Momen is being very accomodating to the religious (being one himself), as can be expected from one doing comparative religion (a certain amount of relativism is probably almost a requirement there).

Fischer's work on state-bound knowledge, for example, shows that the aroused state of mind produced by religious experience is also produced by several other mechanisms (including the use of drugs), all of which produce certain common features (time passing differently, state-bound knowledge, and so on). It is therefore reasonable to assume that these features are due to the common result of the differing mechanisms (the aroused state of the mind) rather than the mechanism of arousal itself (mysticism, drugs and so on). In other words, if trance-like states produce several common features no matter whether they are induced by religious mysticism or drugs, then one can assume that these features are a general property of the neurophysiological state induced in the brain, rather than the specific property of the religious experience or drugs themselves. This observation casts no aspersions on the veracity of the religious experience. It merely indicates that these phenomena probably cannot be used as proof of the truth of religious experiences. (P. 180.)

I cannot agree with Momen's politically correct view here: it is obvious that these findings make the claims of religions about the Ultimate Reality even less plausible than they would otherwise be. If one can induce a religious experience with the use drugs, then the experience, reagardless of how it is achieved, is clearly proof only of the fact that people can have hallucinations or other experiences when something strange happens in their brains. No big surprise there. And no gods or ultimate reality are likely to be involved.

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