Mystical Societies and Altered States of Consciousness

Mystical Societies and Altered States of Consciousness

Today there are many groups that may seem secret and mysterious, but they want to connect with God, not control the world.

In a book that deals with so many sinister secret societies and global conspiracies, a distinction must be made between groups that conspire against humankind and those that aspire through meditation, prayer, or direct mystical experience to achieve union with divinity, God, or ultimate reality. Such entities and endeavors as the Self-Realization Fellowship, tantra, Transcendental Meditation, yoga, shamanism, the Association for Research and Enlightenment, the Course on Miracles, and Kabbalah may appear secret and mysterious to those who do not understand their principles, but they are all mystical, not political, in nature, and they seek to reach the divine through meditation or altered states of consciousness induced by silence and prayer, rather than drugs or alcohol. The experiences of the mystics are very subjective, and their dreams, visions, and revelations are most often meant for the individual and are not to be shared.

An altered state of consciousness is a brain state wherein one loses the sense of identity with one’s body or with one’s normal sense perceptions. A person may enter an altered state of consciousness through such things as sensory deprivation or overload, neurochemical imbalance, fever, or trauma. One may also achieve an altered state by chanting, meditating, or entering a trance.

Trance consciousness may be induced by rapt attentiveness to a single stimulus, such as the voice of a hypnotist, one’s own heartbeat, a chant, trance-inducing rituals and primitive dances. The trance state is characterized by hypersuggestibility and concentrated attention on one stimulus to the exclusion of all others.

Trance consciousness usually leads to expanded consciousness, comprising four levels:

  1. the sensory level, characterized by subjective reports of space, time, body image, or sense impressions having been altered;
  2. the recollective-analytic level, which summons up memories of one’s past and provides insights concerning self, work, or personal relationships;
  3. the symbolic level, which is often characterized by vivid visual imagery of mythical, religious, and historical symbols;
  4. the integrative level, in which the individual undergoes an intense religious illumination, experiences a dissolution of self, and is confronted by God or some divine being.

Each of these four levels may be induced by hypnosis, meditation, prayer, or free association during psychoanalysis. Through the ages, many of humankind’s major material and spiritual breakthroughs may have come from these virtually unmapped, uncharted regions of the mind.

Students of spirituality describe the ecstatic experience as the ultimate mystic state—the one in which the human spirit is swept up and into an immediate union with the divine. As Evelyn Underhill says in Mysticism, “The induced ecstasies of the Dionysian mysteries, the metaphysical raptures of the Neoplatonists, the voluntary or involuntary trance of Indian mystics and Christian saints—all these, however widely they may differ in transcendental value, agree in claiming such value, in declaring that this change of consciousness brought with it a valid and ineffable apprehension of the Real.”

Fredric W. H. Myers, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, observed that the evidence for ecstasy is stronger than the evidence for any other religious belief. “Of all the subjective experiences of religion, ecstasy is that which has been most urgently, perhaps to the psychologist most convincingly, asserted; and it is not confined to any one religion,” Myers said. “From the medicine man up to St. John, St. Peter, and St. Paul, with Buddha and Mahomet on the way, we find records which, though morally and intellectually much differing, are in psychological essence the same.”

In the ecstatic state, every thought, feeling, or emotion is pushed out of the mind except for the idea of God and the emotions of joy and love. These fill the mind to the exclusion of nearly everything else, and are themselves blended into a single whole. Mystics do not believe God to be present, they feel God united with their soul.

Mystic ecstasy, to the percipient of the experience, reveals a genuine truth. He or she is brought face-to-face with ultimate reality experienced through emotions and intuition. A transcendence of the self is achieved. The mystic returns from the experience with the certainty of having been somewhere else and having received a revelation of some remarkable truth, such as that reality is unitary and divine; that even ordinary human experiences are phenomenal; that the soul, which is the key to reality, may rise to oneness with God; or that God’s presence can be found everywhere hidden in the midst of daily life.

There are many reasons why the great majority of scientific researchers remain doubtful about the validity of altered states of consciousness, such as the misuse of hypnosis by amateur practitioners, the lack of understanding by professionals and public alike of the creative processes, the disastrous results of the recreational use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, and the many charlatans who claim visions and revelations only to deceive the gullible. Descriptions of mystical revelations become almost florid as self-proclaimed seers and mystics attempt to translate their trance-state experiences into the language of a technically oriented society.

While skeptical psychological researchers continue to label claims of revelation and transcendence through altered states of consciousness as delusional and self-deceptive, others call for a serious examination of the totality of the human entity. Many researchers firmly believe that continued research into altered states of consciousness may well reveal that humankind’s most important discoveries, its highest peaks of ecstasy, and its greatest moments of inspiration occur in reverie, in dreams, and in states of consciousness currently ignored by the professional world and the general public.