Thursday, June 3, 2010

Seeking the Divine Light: Four Medieval Mystics

This is a paper I wrote in 2009 for an independent study with Jim Notebaart focusing on the neurological basis of mystical experience.  I'm still trying to figure out what this topic has to do with my program.

image courtesy of

Seeking the Divine Light: Four Medieval Mystics

Research for this paper began where my earlier writing left off. My previous paper examined the commonality of the mystical experience across religious traditions. I took a perennialist outlook on that topic (Huxley, 2004), having found support for the notion that we humans are inclined by virtue of our common neurobiology to both seek and experience the divine in similar ways. The contextualist argument is that all mystics’ experiences are inextricably linked to the culture and religion in which they live. Some fundamentalists in this camp go so far as to argue that only their faith’s inspiration is from the One True God, and that mystics of other traditions had erred (McGinn, 2004), explored philosophical dead ends (Henry, 1999), or been deceived by satanic forces (Groothius, 2004).

Research for this paper sought to give me a better idea what methods were used by mystics to enter their religious trance, alter their state of consciousness, and attain “Unio Mystica.” The challenge I faced was one of focus. As I dug into the neurobiology underlying mystical experience and other religious tendencies I encountered a mélange of related topics, all of them fascinating. The anatomy and physiology of the human brain and its emergent properties of mind. The role of perception, consciousness, and cognition. The definition of sentience and self-awareness. Awareness of our mortality. The earliest formalized religious practice – Shamanism. Mind body dualism, the source of the sense that Man the animal has also a spirit or a soul. The role of psychology in the formation of myth, community, and the self. The nature of belief, faith, and truth. The emergence of speech, music, art, and religion as critical elements of what made us truly and finally human. I needed a lens through which to focus my attention.

East Asian and South Asian cultures have long histories of mystical practice and psychological technologies but, as a Westerner raised and educated in a dualistic frame and prone to the methodological naturalism, there are cultural referents and symbols that present additional hurdles to my effective understanding and appreciation of their disciplines.

I chose to concentrate on Western mystics. Then I was encouraged to focus on a point in time, the High Middle Ages, the 10th through the 13th centuries. I would learn that this was a time of cross-pollination and ferment as Judaism, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi; Christianity, represented by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches; and Islam, especially Sufism; converged, mixed, and shared philosophical, mystical, and religious thought across Europe and the Middle-East (Armstrong, 1993) (Idel, 1994, 2004) (Mcgaha, 1997). In the centuries to come there would be schism and enmity within the Catholic Church, the conclusion to the Reconquista of Andalusia, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, Reformation and Counterreformation (Grun, 1982). But from the 10th to 13th centuries great minds and fervent hearts would share in ways they have not since (Ariel, 1985) (Hames, 2005, 2006).

The Mystical Mind

How did this human tendency toward mysticism, to seek direct personal experience of the divine, arise? For a possible answer to that question we must make a temporal detour to the late Paleolithic, to one of most interesting intervals in the history of humanity. After several million years of gradual evolutionary change something wondrous happened. A “Cultural Explosion” occurred 100,000 to 40,000 years ago and heralded the arrival of modern humans (Mithen, 1999) (Watkins, 2001).

There was a time when Man did not think as he thinks now (Lewis-Williams, 2002) (Hick, 2006) (Rossano, 2006). The early human who wished to survive the night attributed agency to the natural world. By assuming that a rustling bush concealed a leopard his caution might save his life, but if there was no leopard behind the fluttering leaves he lost little. Hyperactive agency detection became an essential survival trait in our ancestors (Barrett, 2007, 2008). He began to ascribe agency to the natural world, to see patterns where there may be none, and to find intention in manifestations of mindless processes. The evolutionary psychologists argue that eventually the leopard behind every bush became a spirit in every thing. Man indulged this anthropomorphism and saw faces in the clouds and heard voices in babbling brooks (Brady, 1994). There also came a day when Man realized that he would die. All animals die, but Man became the only animal who knew he was alive and that his life would end and this affected him deeply (Alper, 2006). Man realized there was a time before life, life itself, and a time after death (Boyer, 2003). “Homo Religiosus” (Eliade, 1959) recognized the several layers of existence in Creation and his place in it (Lewis-Williams, 2002). Man came to revere his ancestors’ spirits, who affected his daily life. Humans began to bury their dead with grave goods – clothing, food, tools, and weapons for life in the next world (Mithen, 1999) (Pettitt, 2002). And Man experienced visions. In these visions Man encountered the lamented dead, animals of importance, fantastic images, impossible beings, signs and portents. In recording these images he created art. In telling the stories he created language. By expressing stories as chants to a rhythmic beat he created music. As he gave meaning to these images, stories, and music he created religion. Man created – or was created by – language, art, music, and religion (Lewis-Williams, 2002). In time, with maturing cognitive faculties and the guidance of his tribe’s shaman, Man would learn that many paths – starvation, dehydration, fatigue, extreme emotion, nightmare, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, sleep deprivation, dreaming, brain injury, dementia, epilepsy, migraine, oxygen deprivation, severe illness, fever, delirium, food poisoning, consumption of hallucinogens, fasting, bodily mortification, pain, isolation, intense concentration, meditation, breath control, chanting, dance, drumming, prayer, and ritual – could lead to altered states of consciousness, visions, encounters with the spirit world, and even ecstatic experience of the divine (Lewis-Williams, 2002). Mysticism was likely born as soon as we had the faculties to describe it.

Four Medieval Mystics

Jump forward now – some 40,000 years or so – to the period we have chosen to focus on, the High Middle Ages, specifically the 400 years comprising the 10th and 13th centuries in Turkey, Persia, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Mysticism took different forms in the lives of the four medieval mystics we will examine. Their names were Symeon the New Theologian, Hildegard of Bingen, Mevlana Jalal ud-Din Rumi, and Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia. They were Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Sufi Muslim, and Sephardic Jew, respectively. This paper will argue that through our historical lens we can discern neurobiological sources for their visions of the divine light. This paper will also demonstrate that the methods they used to induce their mystical experiences have parallels in our time.

Symeon the New Theologian

The 10th century marked both a low point for European civilization and the peak of the Islamic Golden Age. It saw the beginning of the Reconquista – the European re-conquering of Moorish Spain, or Andalusia as it was called by its Muslim inhabitants (Spikakovsky, 1967). Cordoba became the center of Arab learning, science, and industry in 930 (Grun, 1982).

The Desert Fathers (there were Desert Mothers as well (King, 1984)) of the Eastern Orthodox Church were monastics notorious for their asceticism. Personal privations – denying oneself water, food, or comfort – were routine. In some cases they engaged in more serious mortifications of the body, including deliberate self-mutilation (Favazza, 1989). Symeon, the New Theologian (949-1022 CE) was an influential Desert Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a mystic (Smith, 1958). Born in 949 to aristocratic parents he began studying under Simon Eulabes in 963. He entered the Studite monastery in 977, where he lived in the same cell with Eulabes for a year to engage in prayer, asceticism, and total obedience. He was ordained in 980 and elected higoumenate at St. Mamas shortly thereafter. After the death of Simon Eulabes, in 986 or 987, Symeon began a cult of his old master. This small heresy eventually served the interests of his political enemies within the church hierarchy (McGuckin, 1982).

Symeon practiced methods that would come to be called Hesychasm. Hesychast practices included asceticism, submission to a spiritual director, prayer, and intense meditation.

“[R]est your beard on your chest, and focus your physical gaze, together with the whole of your intellect, upon the centre of your belly or your navel. Restrain the drawing-in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily, and search inside yourself with your intellect so as to find the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul reside.” Symeon quoted in Toti (2008)

Detractors called this technique omphaloscopy, disparaging the mystics’ practice of “contemplating one’s navel.” The hesychast quietist hoped to draw his intellect into his heart where fervent prayer might lead his to eventually experience the divine attributes, including the “uncreated light” of God, the same light that enveloped Christ on Mt. Tabor.

“He opens the window, and suddenly a flash of lightning wraps him round in brilliance. His eyes cannot bear the flash so he immediately protects himself, closing his eyes and falling back. It is the same with the soul enclosed in the senses. If it leans outside, as if through the window of the mind, it is dazzled by the lightning-flash of the pledge within in (I am speaking of the Holy Spirit) and it cannot bear the radiance of this unbearable light. It is immediately struck with amazement and falls back totally on itself, taking refuge in its own house within sensible and human forms.”

An excerpt from Symeon’s Other Theological and Practical Chapters 3.54 (McGuckin, 1982)

The ability of the spiritually adept to attain “Unio Mystica” through intense discipline, asceticism, and piety while Church officials chose instead of to rely on the authority conferred upon them by orders caused Symeon to question the nature of leadership within the Church. He wondered aloud and in his writings why anyone would follow a priest who had not experienced religious visions. No friend of the hierarchy, Symeon was tried, convicted, and sent into exile in 1009. Despite the later rehabilitation of his reputation he chose to live as an exile and was revered as a thaumaturgos and spiritual teacher for the remainder of his life. Symeon the New Theologian died in 1022 (McGuckin, 1982). In time the repetition of a simple prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me (a sinner)” (Toti, 2008) during the meditative breath work, was added to the hesychast method (O’Callahan, 1964). In time hesychast doctrine – which claimed a distinction between God’s essence and attributes, a notion found contrary to the doctrine in the Roman Church – would be successfully defended by Gregory Palamas, and eventually elements of Symeon’s theology folded into the doctrine of the Byzantine Church in the 14th century (Fortescue, 1910) (McGuckin, 1982) (Rutherford, 2006).

Among those researching the use of the hallucinogen LSD in psychotherapy in the 1950s and 1960s was psychiatrist Stanislav Grof (Smith, 2000). Government regulations made LSD more difficult to work with, so in the 1970s Grof began to experiment with “holotropic breath work” as a means to generate altered states of consciousness (Horgan, 2003). As with breath work of earlier disciplines modern practice of holotropic breathing involves selected postures, breath control, and controlled hyperventilation while meditating to induce altered states of consciousness (Grof, 1998). Deliberate hyperventilation can cause pulmonary alkalosis – hypocapnia – which can result in auditory, visual, and emotional effects as well as perceptual distortions, including visions. These effects are attributed to a transient hypofrontality, periods of unusually low activity in the frontal cortex of the brain, caused by neurological effects of hypocapnia (Vaitl, et al., 2005) (Rhinewine, et al, 2007). Breath work continues to play a role in personal introspection and as an adjunct to some forms of psychotherapy (Horgan, 2003).

The 11th Century

When I was in grade school about only thing a student was expected to know about the 11th century was that the William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, bringing to an end the Norman conquest of Britain. In high school we learned that Duncan of Scotland was murdered in 1040 by the notorious Macbeth, who became king and eventually Shakespeare’s eponymous character. The 11th century was significant for other reasons that may not trip off everyone’s tongue. The Islamic Golden Age peaked in Andalusia and Baghdad. The caliphate at Cordoba ended in 1031 after having served as a focal point of Arab society for 100 years. The Reconquista, which began a century earlier, continued to grind away at the Moors’ hold on the Iberian Peninsula. The Great Schism, the split between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches that would last for nearly 1000 years, occurred in 1054. Pope Urban II urged the beginning of the First Crusade in 1096 (Grun, 1982).

Hildegard of Bingen

The 12th century saw the 2nd and 3rd Crusades dispatched to the Holy Land. Gothic architecture appeared in Europe in 1100. The Reconquista continued, European Christians taking Spain back from the Arab Muslims, province by province, as they would until the late 15th century (Grun, 1982).

At the close of the 11th century Hildegaard of Bingen (1098-1179 CE) was born the 8th child of an aristocratic German family. A sickly child, she began to report visions at the age of six. At the age of eight she was a tithed to the Church and was enclosed with Jutta, a local anchoress. At the age of 15 Hildegard became a nun in Jutta’s community which lived under the Rule of Saint Benedict. Jutta died in 1136 and Hildegard, then 38, was elected to lead the community (Fox, 1986). In the course of her life as a Roman Catholic abbess Hildegard was a prodigious author, composer – her music is still performed today, the first female Catholic theologian, scientist, physician, and advisor to kings, queens, popes, and bishops (Quinn, 2000). She is remembered variously as a proto-feminist (Chandler, 2007) or a Renaissance woman some centuries before the Renaissance (Boyce-Tillman, 1993). While her prodigious accomplishments mark her as the equal of any man in her time, or any other, her doctrinaire pedagogy seemed to serve primarily to reinforce the paternalistic view of women in the Church and society (Furlong, 1996). Others have been even less charitable, suggesting that the symptoms of Hildegard’s illness were at their worst when she was frustrated by her situation and that these maladies ceased to oppress her when she got what she wanted (Limburn, 2001). The reason we examine her life in this paper is that Hildegard was also a famous for her mystical visions. These visions, many of which were recorded both as prose and in detailed paintings, have long been attributed to migraine auras, the visual distortions that precede migraine headaches (Sacks, 1987).

“Next I saw a very great and peaceful brightness which was similar to a flame. This brightness had a lot of eyes in it, and it had four corners turned to the four parts of the world. This brightness, indicating the mystery of the heavenly creator, was shown to me in very great mystery. Inside this brightness there was another brightness which was similar to the dawn. This second brightness had the clearness of purple lightning inside itself.” – The Fourth Vision of the First Part (Hozeski, 1986)

In Hildegard’s case, as with many others, these migraines were debilitating, crippling her for days at a time. Demonstrating little interest in the “Unio Mystica” Hildegard interpreted her visions as Christian imagery and in accordance with Roman Catholic doctrine (Furlong, 1996).

Today some 8% of Americans suffer from migraine headaches on a regular basis (Schott, 2007). It seems probable that migraines have affected humans for as long as we can remember. The Sumerians named the demon, T’iu, for migraines some four millennia ago (Walling, 2001). Visual auras before migraines were described by Hippocrates in 400 BCE. Errant electrical impulses coursing across the visual cortex of the brain create form constants that appear as cascading sparks – phosphenes (Sacks, 1987), shimmering halos around objects, fortification spectra, and scintillating scotomata that migrate across the visual field (Nappi, et al., 2008) (Schott, 2007) (Silberstein, 2004) (Manford, et al., 1998). In many cases a migraine headache follows the aura that can range from uncomfortable to crippling and last from 4 to 72 hours. Ironically, a common treatment for the vascular migraine is ergotamine, a vasoconstrictor synthesized from the same fungus, Claviceps Purpura, which is refined to create the hallucinogen LSD (Unger, 2006).

Mevlana Jalal ud-Din Rumi جلال‌الدین محمد رومی

In the 13th century there were more crusades, including “The Children’s Crusade” in 1212. The Inquisition began to use the implements of torture in 1252. Meister Eckhart, destined to become a famous German mystic, was born in 1260 (Grun, 1982).

Ascetic orders emerged within Islam as early as the 8th century in response to perceived excesses at court. The ascetics wore coarse wool clothing like that worn by the Prophet Mohammed. The term for wool in Arabic is “suf” and is at the root of the title Sufi (Armstrong, 1993). Mevlana Jalal ud-Din Rumi (1207-1273 CE) was certainly not the first Sufi, but he remains one of the most famous, and perhaps the most popular (Geographical, 2002). He was a laughing sage, poet, and philosopher. Rumi’s poetry is beautiful to the modern ear, rich with romantic and sometimes erotic imagery.

Born in what is now Balkh, Afghanistan, then part of the Persian Empire, Rumi was the son of Bahaeddin Veled, a theologian, jurist, and mystic. At the age of 12 Rumi fled with his family to escape the Mongols, eventually settling in Konya, Turkey. Rumi studied with his father and took over his teaching position when he died. There he came under the tutelage of Shems al-Din Tabriz, a Sufi scholar. They became close friends and soul mates. When Shems disappeared suddenly, and was presumably assassinated, Rumi is said to have expressed his grief by “turning” in dance. Rumi founded the Mevlevi order within the Sufi sect of Islam and this dance became the “sema” of the “whirling dervishes.” In his turning dance Rumi professed to achieve direct physical union with God. As in the other monotheistic religions the concept of direct union with the divine was a touchy subject within Islam. Carried to extremes such a notion was heretical to mainstream Muslims and cost other Sufi mystics their lives (Armstrong, 1993).

The “muquabala,” the complete dervish ceremony (Freemantle, 1976), involves symbolic costumes (Anderson, 1997), ritual abeyances (LaMothe, 2001), specific postures, instrumental music, and the sema. The sema includes as many as four cycles of whirling for as long as 15 minutes each. Through these cycles of music, movement, and meditation the Mevlevi focuses his concentration, frees himself of “nafs” – his carnal nature, and hopes to experience “wajd” – the ecstasy of finding God. The sema ends with prostration – to connect oneself to the world at one’s navel, an act rich with symbolism and certain to cause overwhelming physical sensations (Osho). The sema was banned in 1924 by Kemal Attaturk as part of his campaign to secularize modern Turkey (Geographical, 2002) but performing the dance was made legalized in the 1950s.

Many of Rumi’s accounts of his union with God were expressed in poetry using the language of romantic or erotic love. Still, we find examples that describe the experience of light.

“If you are a friend of God, fire is your water.
You should have a hundred thousand sets of moth wings,
so that you could burn them away, one set a night.
The moth sees light and goes into fire. You should see fire
and go toward light. Fire is what God is world-consuming.
water, world-protecting.
Somehow each gives the appearance of the other. To those eyes
you have now, what looks like water
burns. What looks like fire
is a great relief to be inside.”

An excerpt from Rumi’s poem “The Question” (Barks, 1995)

Rumi wrote his poetry and taught a philosophy of inter and intra-faith tolerance, peace, and the unconditional love of God until his death in 1273.

While the traditional muquabala may be seen today in Turkey, the modern Western equivalent of the medieval whirling dervish may be the youthful participant in the modern Rave dance party. Ravers dance from dusk until dawn to extremely loud electronic music characterized by strong repetitive rhythmic percussion, bathed in the flicker of stroboscopic light, sometimes while consuming the chemical empathogen MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine or “Ecstasy”). The music is produced and presented with the specific intention of encouraging a trance state. If the rhythm strikes specific frequencies electrical signals coursing through the brain may actually synchronize with the music, creating an effect known as “auditory driving” (Hutson, 2000). Such a combination of overwhelming sensory input can result in depersonalization and a “non-pathological dissociative state” akin to the phenomena described in ethnographic accounts of shamanic healing rituals (Becker-Blease, 2004). For many young people a rave is just an entertaining sort of dance party. For others it creates a sense of community. And for a few the rave serves as a religious experience (Becker-Blease, 2004).

Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia אברהם בן שמואל אבולעפיה

Europe, on the whole, was not kind to the Jews. They would be expelled from England in 1290, massacred in Italy from 1290-1293, and would be expelled from France early in the next century (Grun, 1982). The Ashkenazim – German Jews, lived within a generally anti-Semitic society, subject to intermittent repression and government-sanctioned pogroms. The Sephardim – Spanish Jews, lived lives of relative freedom under tolerant Muslim rulers of Andalusia, the Spanish peninsula. Jews experienced a similar sort of acceptance in Muslim Baghdad throughout the Islamic Golden Age (Robinson, 2006).

There has been a long history of mystical scholarship in Judaism (Hoffman, 1980). Jewish thinking was affected by its many learned and respected writers such as poet and philosopher Ibn Gabirol who authored several Neo-Platonist treatises in 10th century Spain (Lowe, 1989). Around 1174 CE a deeply Gnostic work called Sefer ha Bahir was written in Provence (Scholem, 1946). It formed the earliest collection of writing describing what would become the dominant form of medieval Jewish mysticism – theosophic-theurgic Kabbalah (Halbertal, 1990). The Bahir introduced the concept of the Ten Sefirot, and Ein Sof, which remain cornerstones of modern Jewish theology (Matt, 1997) (Scholem, 1946) (Jacobs, 1976).

Older Merkebah – Chariot, and Hekhalot – Throne, mystical traditions date from Second century Palestine and involved deep contemplation on Biblical passages from the Book of Ezekiel. These meditations made use of special knowledge imparted from master to student and were undertaken with great seriousness and caution after long preparation. This tradition gave rise to another sort of Kabbalah – ecstatic or prophetical Kabbalah (Idel, 1988). Where the theosophic-theurgic Kabbalah sought understanding, ecstatic Kabbalah strived for direct experience of the divine.

Abraham Ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-1292 CE) was born in Saragossa, Spain in 1240. He studied with his father until his father died in 1258. Abulafia traveled to Israel in 1260 and returned to Spain by way of Greece and Italy in 1270. In Barcelona he studied under Barukh Torgarmi and encountered the ecstatic and magical Kabbalah traditions practiced by the Ashkenazim in Germany (Kohler). Reading the work of Eleazar of Worms, Abulafia discovered the Way of Permutations – “tzeruf.” This method took the form of “gematria” – manipulation of letters as numerals, “notarikon” – using the letters in a word as the initial of other words, “temurah” – substitution of one letter for another (Nash, 2008). Absorbed in the tens of thousands of combinations that can be made of Hebrew’s 22 letters, five vowels, and word orders Abulafia began to experience visions (Kohler) (Bartucci, 2004). This meditative discipline involved not only tablet and ink but also ritual bathing, the donning of white clothes, wearing the prayer shawl and tefillin, the lighting as many candles as possible, and sequestering oneself for days at a time (Scholem, 1946). The permutations were written on a pad and then recited or chanted. There were specific procedures for speaking on inhalation and exhalation and specific movements of the head and neck as different vowels were uttered (Kaplan, 1985) (Cooper, 2005). As the seeker grew more and more absorbed in his task he sensed he was about to “receive an Influx of the Divine Light.” Abulafia was one of the few ecstatic Kabbalists to record his method and its results (Scholem, 1946). One of Abulafia’s students recorded his experience of “an all-pervading light.”

“The third night, after midnight, I nodded off a little, quill in hand and paper on my knees. Then I noticed that the candle was about to go out. I rose to put it right, as oftentimes happens to a person awake. Then I saw that the light continued. I was greatly astonished, as though, after close examination, I saw that it issued from myself. I said: 'I do not believe it.' I walked to and fro all through the house and, behold, the light is with me; I lay on a couch and covered myself up, and behold, the light is with me all the while.” (Idel, 1988)

Abulafia left Spain again for Greece and Italy where he lectured on Moses Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed and wrote more of his own 26 books. Abulafia life was not without its eccentricities. In 1280, convinced he was the messiah, he traveled to Suriano, Italy, to visit Pope Nicholas III at his summer residence with the hope of converting him. Advised of Abulafia’s intentions Nicholas ordered that Abulafia be burned at the stake when he arrived. Fortuitously Nicholas died of a stroke on the eve of Abulafia’s arrival and the death sentence was not carried out. Instead Abulafia was briefly imprisoned by the Franciscans and then sent on his way. He traveled to Sicily as a prophet and messiah, where he was rebuffed by the rabbinical community. Abulafia then spent some years on the Mediterranean island of Comino writing. His last work on prophetic Kabbalah was completed in 1291 and after 1292 Abraham Abulafia passed out of the historical record (Kohler).

As we seek modern correlation to Abulafia’s technique there are passages, such as this one written by another of his contemporaries, which modern scientists find intriguing:

“I call heaven and earth to witness that one day I sat and wrote down a Kabbalistic secret: suddenly I saw the shape of my self standing before me and myself disengaged from me and I was forced to stop writing.” (Scholem, 1946)

Scholem interpreted this and other reports of Kabbalists seeing themselves apart from themselves at the moment they received prophecy as some sort of mystical simile (Scholem, 1946). Modern scientists find that these accounts correlate strongly with descriptions of “autoscopic phenomenon,” the most common form of which is known as the “out-of-body experience.” There are three variations of autoscopic phenomenon. In an autoscopic hallucination one sees a double of himself standing apart from the observer. In “heautoscopy” one perceives two copies of himself, but is uncertain which one is the “real” self. In the out-of-body experience the viewer sees his real body from the perspective of the disembodied self “localized outside one’s physical body,” the observer frequently floating above the subject (Arzy, et al., 2005) While autoscopic phenomenon are most frequently associated with a variety of neurological disorders (Blanke, et al. 2005), Arzy speculates that Abulafia’s technique, depending as it does on the written and spoken word and concentration on intense imagery, triggered a similar effect at the temporal parietal junction of the brain where language, auditory sensations, and mental imagery are processed. Thomas Metzger surmised that the “folk-psychology of the soul” may have had its origins in of the autoscopic phenomenon and out-of-body experiences as recounted by early man (see Arzy, et al., 2005).

Altered States of Consciousness

There are many more paths to the mystical experience than are illustrated in our brief sampling of medieval mystics. Indeed, Stanislav Grof has said “Ancient and aboriginal cultures have spent as much time and energy developing techniques of inducing such states as we do trying to develop ways of suppressing them when they occur spontaneously.” (Mead)

In the broadest sense the pursuit of the unitary experience, or Unio Mystica, involves either cultivating hyperquiesence – a deeply relaxed state, or engaging in hyperarousal – a state of overwhelming excitation (D’Aquilli, et al. 2000) (Newberg, et al. 2002, 2006). Paradoxically, D’Aquili and Newberg have argued that SPECT and fMRI imaging technologies demonstrate that extreme hyperquiesence can result in arousal and sustained hyperarousal can take a person to a quiescent state. They theorize that when the brain is subjected to disproportionate activation in one area the hippocampus, which regulates information exchange through the limbic system, “puts the brakes on brain activity.” This has the result of causing certain areas of the brain to become “deafferented,” or denied input. One particular area D’Aquili and Newberg believe is central to the mystical experience is the “orientation association area” where the brain’s sense of self and the perception of our physical boundaries are maintained. Whether this area is an anatomical region or a functional construct is the subject of some debate and ongoing research (Uttal, 2002). Deafferentation of the orientation association area is thought to be responsible for facilitating the unitary experience. Whether this is perceived as merging with God, becoming one with everything, or encountering the void may depend on the set and setting of the seeker. (D’Aquilli, et al. 2000) (Newberg, et al. 2002, 2006).

There are several general categories by which mystical experience, religious trance, and related altered states of consciousness may be induced in the human brain (Miller, 2007). Let’s call them somatic, pathogenic, psychological, entheogenic, and social.

Somatic methods include ascetic practices, breath control, oxygen deprivation, nitrogen narcosis, dehydration, fasting, hypoglycemia, starvation, endurance sports that result in the “Runner’s High” (Dietrich, 2003), fatigue, bodily mortification, entoptic phenomena (Lewis-Williams, 2004), sensory deprivation, sensory overload (D’Aquilli, et al. 2000), sleep deprivation, and the various sleep states – hypnagogia and hypnopompia, dreaming, and REM sleep (Manford, et al, 1998). There are also traditional tantric and yogic practices (Horgan, 2003). In modern times there are neurotechnologies such as direct electrical and intracranial magnetic stimulation of key areas of the brain (Ramanchandran, 1998) (Horgan, 2003), as well as the electronic modulation of visual or auditory stimuli (Vaitl, et al., 2005).

There are pathogenic causes of experiences to which some mystical experiences may be attributed such as brain injuries – lesions and strokes (Blanke, et al. 2005) (Taylor, 2008) among others, Charles Bonnet Syndrome – a special hallucination experienced by person losing their sight to macular degeneration (Ramachandran, 1998), a wide variety of psychiatric disorders (Vaitl, et al., 2005), dementia, severe illness, epilepsy (Boveroux, et al, 2008), migraine (Sacks, 1987) (Manford, et al, 1998), infection, fever, and delirium.

There are psychological paths to altered states of consciousness; visualization, guided imagery, hypnosis, intense concentration, meditation, stress, intense emotion, nightmare, night terror, sleep paralysis, and mass hysteria (Vaitl, et al., 2005).

Entheogenic methods include all forms of chemical intoxication such as food poisoning – ergotism for example (Horgan, 2003), anesthesia (James, 1929), consumption of hallucinogens (Strassman, 1997), and treatment with psychotropic medication (Manford, et al., 1998) (Smith, 2000) (Dietrich, 2003).

Finally, there are social activities intended to induce mystical states, trances, and hallucinations: isolation, chanting, dance, drumming, prayer, and ritual (Barrett, 2000) (Bartucci, 2004) (Becker-Blease, 2004).

One looks upon this list of the many means by which hallucinatory mystical states occur and wonders how our pre-historic ancestors, or even members of our small sample of medieval mystics, managed to get through the day without encountering what we regard as altered states of consciousness. Maybe they didn’t. Did they understand these neurobiological states even when they knew how to deliberately induce them? Perhaps not. Are we so certain we understand them now? Good question.


We are not now as we were then. Philosophy, science, the written word, language, art, politics, dance, music, religion were not always distinctly separate disciplines. Our definition of consciousness, knowledge, and truth has changed over the recorded history of Western civilization. Heraclitus famously declared “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” I am not the same person who began this research. I have learned about amanita mascaria, auditory driving, Charles Bonnet Syndrome, claviceps purpura, dimethyltryptamine, form constants, entoptic phenomena, Hesychasm, Holotropic breathing, “Homo Religiosus,” Kabbalah, Merkebah, migraine auras, Neoplatonism, the Reconquista, Sefer ha-Bahir, serotonin, set and setting, shamanism, synaesthesia, theosophy, and the “Unio Mystica.” I have studied the scholarship of Alper, d’Aquili, Pascal Boyer, Deikman, Eliade, William James, Horgan, Aldous Huxley, Lewis-Williams, Daniel Matt, Andrew Newberg, Otto, Persinger, Ramanchandran, Scholem, and Huston Smith. To my knowledge base I’ve added Before Farming, Council on Spiritual Practices, Irish Theological Quarterly, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Neurologica blog, Project Gutenberg,, Sage journals online, and Zygon. I have done my best to absorb the wisdom of Symeon, Hildegard, Rumi – especially Rumi!, and Abulafia. Some of what they have to tell us is pretty obscure, but much of it is timeless, fresh, and familiar. As I studied the interplay of the mystical traditions within and between the Abrahamic faiths the tapestry before me grew richer and more textured than I had ever imagined it could.


My research for this paper began with an undercurrent of skeptical reductionism. I still believe there is ample evidence that the mystical experiences we’ve examined in this paper have neurobiological origins. But at some point in my reading, discussions, debates, and contemplation over the last eight months my enthusiasm for proving that point faded. I have come to believe that even though the mystical experience has common neurobiological origins and arises out of similar human yearnings, the society in which the mystic finds himself or herself provides lenses through which he or she cannot help but see and templates they have little choice but to apply. It doesn’t matter so much why our mystics and others saw what they saw. What’s important is what they did as a result of their experiences. As William James reminded us it is “the fruits not the roots” that should concern us most (James, 1929). My deep agnosticism has softened. I have become more comfortable with the religious certainty of others and I’m less distressed by my own lack of certainty. Despite my retaining a strong inclination toward methodological naturalism, reductionism, and skepticism I’d like to think my world has grown larger and my worldview a little kinder.


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