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What Are Transcendent Experiences?

Those who have been subscribed to The Mind Power Report for a while know that I tend to look for rational explanations for most things. I'm not too tolerant of some "new age" ideas, or blind faith, or wishful thinking that passes itself off as open-mindedness. In fact, as I've said before, it seems very closed-minded to look only for evidence of preferred explanations while not exploring more scientific or mundane ones. On the other hand, I have always been fascinated with what we call "mystical" or transcendental experiences, having had them myself.

Those who haven't had these experiences might be skeptical, but transcending the boundaries of the "self" and feeling at peace with and a part of a larger world is common for those who regularly meditate. It is sometimes called a religious experience too, although plenty of atheists report the same general feelings without the need to reference gods or faiths. Of course, if one has such feelings in the context of religious practices, it is likely that it will not only be interpreted as coming from someplace divine, but it will also tend to strengthen one's faith. Non-believers can explain their transcendental experiences in various ways, but perhaps the most logical is that in the process they get past (or away from?) the ego self that the mind creates, and so escape for a time all of the stress and suffering that sometimes goes with maintaining that invented identity.

The phrase "invented identity," may not sit well with some, but for many, including those of us who seek a rational understanding of the world, it is an observable fact that we largely create what we think of as our "selves." Your body, and even parts of personality, are inherited, but your mind puts together the various parts that you think of as yourself as you go through life. It can be seen in the language we use. You might say you are a teacher, for example, and think of yourself as such, while someone could say you are a human who spends some hours teaching each week, acknowledging that what you do temporarily does not necessarily define some essence of who you are. The more subtle aspects of identity can be feeling that you are honest or strong or that you are the person who inhabited your body in scenes recalled from the past (can we really say we are the same person as the one in that memory?)

In any case, there is a sense of peace that comes from letting go of this fragile and limited conception of who we are. So how can we have such transcendental "trips" outside of ourselves? I recently found some research on this...

Magic Mushrooms in the Laboratory

A study at Johns Hopkins university looked at the mystical experiences produced by psilocybin, which is the active compound in what are called, "magic mushrooms." It found no difference between these and the spontaneous religious experiences reported for centuries by believers in various faiths. Researchers also discovered that the effects could be life-changing, at least temporarily.

For the study they used 30 middle-aged volunteers who had religious or spiritual interests (perhaps a flaw in the set up of the study--why not non-religious people as well?). Subjects participated in two drug sessions, eight hours long each time, with two months between them. They received psilocybin in one session and the drug Ritalin, a non-hallucinogenic stimulant, in the other. They did not know which one they received.

When they were compared with religiously-inspired mystical experiences, the drug-induced versions were determined to be "descriptively identical." Two-thirds of the subjects rated the experience as one of the five most meaningful in their lives. Half of those said it was THE most meaningful.

Being "descriptively identical" does not necessarily mean identical. There is much that we cannot adequately describe, but the results of the experiments do strongly suggest that there may be some physical/chemical process in the brain that causes such experiences for both atheists and believers.

Amazingly, the effects lasted for quite a while. About 80% of subjects reported moderately or greatly increased wellbeing or life satisfaction two months or longer after having taken the drugs. Researchers confirmed these changes with friends, relatives and and colleagues of the participants. There were some negative experiences as well, though. A third of the subjects felt paranoia or fear during the sessions.

Many scientists hope this marks a renewal of serious research into the uses of psychedelic drugs. Such research has been mostly halted for thirty years or more due to a reaction against the excesses of the 1960 drug culture, but substances like psilocybin probably have great potential for exploring the possibility of reorienting our minds in beneficial ways. Some of these substances (or drugs, if you prefer) are relatively safe too. For example, neither psilocybin or lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) appear to be addictive, and they are generally well-tolerated by our bodies. But they are seen as dangerous, and their use can result in long prison terms. Using them in research can be difficult.

It is an interesting question why there are prohibitions against such relatively safe drugs like these, while drugs like tobacco and alcohol kill millions and are used legally in most parts of the planet. Some speculate that it the nature of the experiences they provide that makes us fear and outlaw them. If people were to use tools like these to get beyond there limited idea of who they are, and to feel happier in general, they might not need religions or religious authorities, after all, and they might not be as amenable to the control that most societies (or at least their leaders) want to exert on their members.

Of course, it also seems safer if this can be accomplished through meditation or other tools, like brainwave entrainment recordings. I will report on this again if there is further research into the mystical or transcendental aspects of our brains and minds.

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