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An essay donated by by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

What is Spiritual Bliss, a.k.a. Mystical or Spiritual Transcendence?

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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 ego.

Nutt continues:

"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.

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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 self.

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!

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Reference used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Alexander Zaitchik, "The God Capsule: Can Psychedelics Prove a Biological Basis for Spirituality?, Alernet, 2017-NOV-08, at:
  2. 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"

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Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
Originally posted on: 2017-NOV-27
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