An essay donated by by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
What is Spiritual Bliss, a.k.a. Mystical or Spiritual Transcendence?
There is an interesting article by Alexander Zaitchik posted at the Alternet website on 2017-NOV-08. It was titled: "The God Capsule: Can Psychedelics Prove a Biological Basis for Spirituality?" 1
He states that: "By pairing the controlled mysticism induced by psychedelics with modern imaging technology, scientists are mapping the biological underpinnings of spiritual bliss."
This "spiritual bliss" is also called "Spiritual Transcendence."
This topic is being pursued at Beckley-Imperial College in London. David Nutt, co-director of the project states:
"Our psychedelic imaging studies show a strong association between experiences of god and a breakdown in activity linking the posterior cingulate cortex to the
frontal brain regions."
Out-of body-experiences are linked to reduced blood flow in the posterior cingulate cortex, which is the central hub in the brain for the creation of our sense of self, or
"The posterior cingulate cortex integrates inputs from the senses, especially
sight, plus inner sensations such as position -– sense and time -- in relation to the brains predictions
or inferences. ... It is the master controller of 'normal' consciousness."
What this means is that when this section of the brain is bypassed or switched off, the body experiences that we call (for lack of better words) spiritual transcendence, mystical states, out of body feelings, a loss of sense of space and time, or a feeling of oneness with the Universe. This is because the boundaries/walls created by our Ego/Will are broken down. The experience is transcendent in that it goes beyond the every day, normal boundaries of our human experience.
Mystical or Spiritual Transcendent experiences have happened to a few, not the many, during human history. Mystics and Spiritual people have often been ostracized, disbelieved, and/or persecuted for their experiences.
That hasn’t stopped many from trying to have such experiences. The Whirling Dervishes in the Sufi branch of Islam seek
such experiences with their trance-like whirling dance, that helps to break this connection in the
brain. American Indians and Catholic Flagellants sought these experiences with the
performance of their severe pain inducing rights. Buddhist and Hindu meditating monks and
ascetics have quieter, less painful ways of seeking such experiences. Such an experience probably is what happened to the children of Lourdes and Saint Theresa. Early Beatniks and
Hippies found such experiences with the use of psychedelic drugs.
I have a Masters Degree in Leisure Studies from the University of Illinois. There is a Leisure Theory called "Flow." It is about the transcendent experience that dancers and others report when the activity they are doing is challenging but matched to their level of ability. Time and space flow together, as they "fire on all cylinders" and are totally immersed/lost in their activity. I have had such experiences while throwing pots on a wheel. After I had attained basic mastery of the skill, I could set to work and I would lose track of all the people around me, and of time as I
concentrated on the task at hand. All my troubles faded away, all tension, hard feelings. It was just me, the wheel and the clay. Dancers, musicians, painters report such experiences when they
become totally immersed in their craft.
The theory comes from Mihaly Csiksentmihaly, a
psychologist at the University of Chicago.
Humans have spent lifetimes seeking such experiences and most have never had them. Their
Ego’s are too strong.
I think there are many that mistake the adrenaline rush and sexual flush that comes with ecstatic
experience for a mystical, spiritual transcendent experience. Many of the mega-churches try to
induce these feelings with their modern and lively worship services!
I think the difference between the real transcendent experience and the sexual flush and
adrenaline rush of ecstatic experience, is that with the later -- once the adrenaline wears off -- there
is no profound change in the person.
Zaitchik points out in his article that scientific evidence increasingly shows mystical, transcendent spiritual
experiences are more likely to encourage a broad spirituality that is humanistic, anti-authoritarian, and lasting. They are truly transformative experiences.
Religious leaders have often found such experiences in their parishioners to be threatening. This perhaps comes
from jealousy, because they haven’t had such an experience. Or, they fear of losing control of their
congregations. The children of Lourdes and Saint Theresa were persecuted by their priests for
reporting their experiences.
Many Atheists belittle and demean any idea of such experiences. This research shows that there is a biological mechanism at work with these experiences -- nothing supernatural.
Many people who have experienced extreme physical trauma report having out of body experiences. I think extreme pain (which is what the American Indians and Catholic Penetentes and flagellants realized) causes the body to shut down non-essential functions in order to save
the physical body and stop the pain from stopping vital body functions.
Soldiers in the midst of battle report having such experiences. I think it is a survival mechanism that enables the body to cut out outside influences (noise, lights, etc) that distract the soldier
from doing what must be done to survive. This helps explain a passage in the Bible where God
stopped the sun in the sky so the Hebrews could win a battle.
I wonder if the way a person describes their experience is influenced by their notion of God/s/ess/esses. The person who already believes in God will describe the experience
as an encounter with God. The person who has no belief in God reports that the experience was one of oneness with the Universe. Their Ego (that cingulate cortex) -- once it is back in
control -- integrates/interprets the experience in relation to it’s understanding of the world and its
Some might think that discovering the biological mechanism at work with transcendent spiritual
experiences takes away the power of the experience. I think the discovery of this biological
mechanism actually enhances the power because we understand that our bodies are wired for such
experiences. They are a natural aspect of being human -- whether one is an Atheist, like me,
an Agnostic, or a religious person.
I think this recent research shows an intersection between modern Science and ancient esoteric
religious concepts -- in particular the Chakra system found in both Buddhism and Hinduism. This shows to
me at least that the ancients were wiser and more aware of our bodies abilities than modern
humans! Basically these two systems believe there are Chakra points on one's body -- four in Buddhism, seven in
Hinduism, and sometimes more in some traditions within these religions. They are energy centers which are distributed from
the top of the head to the base of our spines. These are places where the Qi of Qigong of
Chinese philosophy -- such as represented in the Tao Te Ching -- and the Hindu prana connect with the physical body. They are sometimes
called "life breath," or "energy of the universe."
The top chakra in all the systems is the crown, top of our head above the frontal lobes of our
brain. Many of us have experienced instances of a tingling, skin crawling sensation of our scalp
which is a sign of increased blood flow to that region.
This is what modern brain imaging technology shows is happening when the cingulate cortex
is bypassed and more blood flows to the frontal lobes. This awakens the highest spiritual center of
the body and produces a state of pure consciousness, spiritual transcendence, out of body experience
in which one experiences and the sense of
union or oneness with god or the universe. There is neither object nor subject, time nor space, past nor present.
To paraphrase Paul and Christian religious ideas, in the person who has truly experienced
spiritual transcendence (not a pseudo ecstatic experience), there would be neither Greek nor
Jew, male nor female, servant/slave nor master, homosexual nor heterosexual, transgender or cisgender, immigrant nor
native born. There would be no "us" or "them -- all of those that aren’t like us". There would be
only WE (I wrote an essay about the Power of WE a year ago). All would be seen as being of one
body of Christ.
I, as an Atheist, saw my transcendent experience as being one with all living things AND as
being one with the Masters -- all of those saints and sages who mastered the art of living and
shared their wisdom with the rest of us: Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Jesus, the unknown
writers of the Upanishads, authors of the Bible, and other sacred texts, American Indian spiritual leaders such as Black Elk, Epictetus and the rest of the Greek philosophers, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Mark
Twain and other great writers of fiction.
Once you have had such an experience there is no going back, only forward!
The following information source was used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.
Alexander Zaitchik, "The God Capsule: Can Psychedelics Prove a Biological Basis for Spirituality?, Alernet, 2017-NOV-08, at: https://www.alternet.org/
Epicetus (55-135 CE) was a Greek Stoic philosopher who was born into slavery at Hierapolis, Phrygia and lived in Rome. He was banished to Nicopolis in Greece. Ms. Huphreys who wrote the above essay also discussed Epictetus in another essay: "Some things are beyond our control"