Our day-to-day lives are filled with a myriad number of mundane tasks we must accomplish as a matter of necessity. We have responsibilities to ourselves and to our loved ones. Yet, the sacred coexists with the mundane in our lives; our ideals, inspirations, and higher powers inform daily aspects of our lives. In other words, the interaction between the sacred and the mundane is an essential aspect of being human. The impact of transformative experiences on our daily lives is the theme for the first part of this post, while the latter half will address the implications of these experiences on our scientific models of reality.
I. Impact on Human Experience
Transformations of consciousness alter the core of meaning in our lives. Recall that spiritual transformations can be thought of as “a fundamental SHIFT in the ways we relate to the sacred” (Sandage & Moe, 2013). These experiences suddenly alter the individual, but the world they live in, the people they are surrounded by, their duties and commitments, initially, at least, remain the same. There is an old Chinese adage, “before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” This proverb highlights the fact that no matter how lofty our ideals and spiritual conceptions are, as humans living in our earthly bodies we retain basic needs. On the other hand, the new perspectives of those who experience transformations in consciousness will inadvertently impact certain elements of their lives. One’s occupation might be altered to align better with a new sense of purpose, or the ways one relates to others may be altered dramatically, perhaps leading to deepened connections or growing distance.
Delving into the topic of transformative experiences leads to three fundamental questions;
1. Is there a common core lesson, theme or realization these experiences share?
2. How do these experiences impact daily life?
3. Can these experiences be triggered deliberately?
Regarding the first question, recall that previous posts have covered three types of experiences: near-death experiences, mystical experiences (natural and chemically-induced), and conversion experiences. These phenomena often lead people down different religious paths, but they do share underlying themes. One of the most commonly occurring and most beneficial aftereffects of these experiences is the direct contact with unconditional love that experiencers often report. In conversion experiences, this unconditional love is experienced by the individual through a sense of redemption and forgiveness (James, 1902). These patterns are also found in some NDEs. For example, in Revealing Heaven, John Price describes the story of a criminal who asked for forgiveness during a distressing and hellish NDE, and who was delivered. Afterward he was so moved by the feeling of being forgiven that he changed his lifestyle completely (Price, 2013). Interestingly, in mystical experience the feeling often expressed is one of realization of a love that was already there, a sense of coming home.
What does unconditional love mean? In the context of spirituality this is often described as “a powerful and loving presence underlying all of reality.” (Strassman, 2001).
If unconditional love is a frequently recurring lesson, how does it affect daily life? Decreased interest in material goods and status, and an increased desire to serve others is a common change. Coming in contact with unconditional love inspires one to reach out and share that same love with one’s fellows. This may lead to switching careers, becoming active in a religious institution or charitable organization, or other significant lifestyle modifications. One’s focus may shift from self-centeredness to increased empathy and interest in the welfare of others. Spiritual activities such as prayer and meditation may be utilized more frequently to feel connected to the source of that transcendent experience. Diane, an experiencer, describes her spirituality before and after this way: “Before, I was somehow separate from things spiritual and struggled to get in touch. That struggle has ceased…. I live it.” (Atwater, 2011). The three observable effects; reduced materialism, increased interest in serving others and increased/deepened spiritual practice create a much more soul-nourishing life (Baruss, 2003).
Can these experiences be deliberately triggered? The near-death experience certainly cannot be created on command. Neither can a conversion experience. Chemically-induced mystical experience shows promise but most entheogens are illegal, potentially dangerous and further research is needed to determine their reliability and side-effects. Many who seek these transformations in consciousness work towards experiencing them “naturally.” However, the paradox is that seeking such experiences often times prevents them from happening. Religious adepts who report such experiences usually describe the phenomenon as arising spontaneously even when they seem to occur as a result of a particular practice, such as deep prayer or meditation. A useful analogy here is the process of falling asleep. Humans generally do not fall asleep in the same deliberate manner in which they pick up a pencil or stand up. Rather, in order to fall asleep we set the conditions most conducive for sleep to occur – lying in a comfortable bed, being in a darkened, quiet room, and so on. In the same way, these experiences often happen by allowing them to occur while diligently walking the chosen spiritual path. In the end, spending time chasing such experiences can simply be a distraction from living and finding the sacred in our daily lives. Unconditional love can serve as a source of inspiration for one’s daily actions and intentions, but one doesn’t necessarily have to have a radical transformation of consciousness in order to experience unconditional love.
II. Impact on Scientific Models of Reality
The current prevailing view of the universe is called scientific materialism. This can be defined as the view that physical reality, available for study by the natural sciences, is all that exists (Haught, 2010). As a result, the mind or consciousness is simply a label for a complex series of electrical and chemical activity in the brain. NDEs in particular, challenge this view and suggest that mind can exist independently of the body. Countless NDE cases involve individuals who were clinically dead or had zero measurable cognitive activity, yet who remain able to describe events that occurred in their environment during the time of death with demonstrably sharp observation and attention skills. In a striking example described in Irreducible Mind, a patient underwent hypothermic cardiac arrest to remove an aneurysm deep in her brain. She had her eyes taped shut and blood completely drained from her brain as well as no cardiac function during the procedure. The process required intensive monitoring of her vital signs and by all conventional criteria she was clinically dead during the procedure. In spite of all this, the patient still reported a full-blown NDE and also provided verifiable observations of the unusual equipment used in the surgery as well as comments by the nurses in the room (Kelly et al., 2006).
The premise that consciousness exists independently of the body unavoidably leads to the possibility of post-mortem survival. But it also raises a question: what is consciousness if not simply a process generated by the brain? Experts from diverse fields such as quantum physics, transpersonal psychology and philosophy are working together and coordinating efforts to find alternatives to the materialistic view that can account for these possibilities of disembodied consciousness and post-mortem survival.
Enter the filter theory model. The premise of this theory is that consciousness is not generated by the human brain, but rather filtered by it (Kelly et al., 2006). In the same manner we can only perceive a certain range of the electromagnetic spectrum as visible light, we access our everyday consciousness while the greater part of our consciousness remains out of our usual awareness. And just like the visible light range falling somewhere between the infrared and the ultraviolet wave lengths, regular consciousness exists in between older more primitive types of consciousness (think typical unconscious, repressed drives) and newer “super”-conscious forms of consciousness that we experience fitfully. In this analogy, transcendent experiences, mystical insights, and psychic phenomena all belong to that upper range of consciousness we experience in those rare moments. In order to ensure the biological survival of the individual organism, consciousness has to be reduced down to what is manageable to the individual. Powerful transformative experiences such as NDEs or mystical experiences, based on this theory, temporarily collapse some of the natural filters we possess and allow the overwhelming contents of a bigger self, or what Dr. Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University refers to as Big Mind, to come rushing in. This is an extremely bold and different view and is still being refined by advocates, but it shows promise. In the future we might find some reconciliation of these two ways of viewing reality.
Immersing myself in this subject matter for the past several months has led to a deeper and wider sense of existence. It reaffirmed a sense of shared humanity I have often felt, caused me to question my perspectives on life and the finality of death, and opened me up to a sense of mystery and awe regarding the unanswered questions of the universe and our bio-psycho-social-spiritual nature. My desire is that your journey through this series of blog posts might gift you with something similar.
Atwater, P.M.H. (2011). Near-death Experiences, the rest of the story: What they teach us about living, dying, and our true purpose. New York, NY: MJF Books
Barušs, I. (2003). Transcendence. In , Alterations of consciousness: An empirical analysis for social scientists (pp. 187-210). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10562-008
Haught, J. F., Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God and the Drama of Life, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010.
James, W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Kelly, E. F., Kelly, E. W., Crabtree, A., Gauld, A., Grosso, M., & Greyson, B. (2007). Irreducible mind: Toward a psychology for the 21st century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Price, J. W. (2013). Revealing Heaven: The Christian case for near-death experiences. New York, NY: HarperCollins.