Martin LeFevre: Demystifying Mystical Experience
Demystifying Mystical Experience
I dislike the term 'mystical experience.' What happens in the brain during states of meditation is neither mystical, nor an experience. To my mind it's an event, a phenomenon that is new each time.
The brain has the capacity of gathering, through passive observation, attention that is quicker than thought, which then acts on thought to silence it. That's all. This can happen within anyone, if they understand how to observe themselves without interference.
Effortlessly watching every mental and emotional reaction, without judging or controlling the memories, feelings, and physical states that arise in the moment, is the only action that is needed.
In terms of mental activity, there are two levels of reaction. There are spontaneous reactions, such as when part of a conversation one had yesterday is triggered and replays in the mind. And there are secondary reactions, such as when we evaluate what we said or did.
We experience both types of reactions as arising from the 'me,' a seemingly independent entity that forms the axis of our existence. But this homunculus in our heads has no more reality than the fully formed human being that was once thought to exist inside an egg or spermatozoa. And yet, in one form or another, ego and survival are equated at a limbic level in the brain. Which is why it's so hard to 'lose ourselves.'
However, if awareness is quick and intense enough to see through the illusion and habit the mind has of continually dividing itself off from itself, the observer dissolves in observation. (Asking oneself whether the observer is operating helps draw attention to the mechanism.)
Observing without the observer, the mind naturally quiets down. Thought slows, even stops. Then there is just the stream of content-consciousness. Sensory impressions are heightened (no longer mediated by words, images, and memories), and there is a deepening state of insight. Also, in awakening meditation, the brain is renewed, and remains young.
In the completely unforced stillness of attention, the brain is aware of energies that cannot be named, and for which it would be contradictory and self-defeating to try to name. There is, after the fact, some degree of doubt whether these essences are real. That's good, since doubt keeps one honest. But it can go too far.
These states have been called, devotionally or derisively, 'mystical experiences,' but those words can point to something actual, or refer back to nothing but an idea.
This isn't personal, not an individual 'kind of consciousness,' but is open to anyone who understands the principles of psychological division, undivided observation, and content-consciousness.
Using MRI machines, the brains of people in deeper states of meditation exhibit marked changes in brain activity (perhaps vibrant inactivity is a better way to put it). But non-drug-induced altered states of consciousness cannot be measured and quantified, since by definition they are not a function of knowledge and reason, but of awareness and insight.
If one experiments with self-observation, taking both a serious and playful attitude, the "doors of perception" open. I don't make a goal of it, but simply take the time, in nature if possible, to sit quietly and watch everything inclusively, outside and inside.
Today the valley is graced with the warmest and most beautiful day of the year. Fruit, almond, and other blossoming trees are in nearly full flower.
Hawks screech from all directions in the parkland, and birds play raucously and joyfully. Friendliness and joy are also reflected in the faces of many of the people using the park for every conceivable activity‹walking, running, horseback riding, biking, and rollerblading.
The creek is still very full, but until observation quiets the mind and cleanses the heart I hardly notice the roiling green water. Then everything is vivid and new‹the stream and sky, the birdsongs and the realm beyond human sorrow.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author welcomes comments.