Before I get started, I'd like to say that this post actually got me banned from the ThinkAtheist forum because it gave some people the impression that I was proselytizing an "LSD God." That is entirely a misinterpretation of what I'm attempting to convey here. So, I must make it clear right from the get go that I'm not trying to sell anyone any specific concept or ideology. These are simply my opinions, and so you're welcome to think whatever you may of them, but please allow them to ricochet before you're quick to judge and mistakenly accuse this rap of being an attempt at "proselytizing." The post is as follows: 

This topic has been discussed in various threads at the ThinkAtheist forum such as the "McKenna" thread and the "Entheogen Theory of Religion" thread. The Entheogen theory of Religion is espoused by Michael Hoffman which he elucidates at this website "". However, there is another similar theory which says that these type of experiences are at the very root of religion as in Aldous Huxley's "Perennial Philosophy," which implies that the ingestion of psychedelics may not have been the sole route to inducing a "mystical experience" as Michael Hoffman believes and Terence McKenna initially thought as well. Has anyone read "The Doors of Perception"?
Aldous Huxley makes a reference there to a Perennial Philosophy which he espouses as the original root of religion which has its basis in colossal altered states of consciousness. If you scratch all of the major religions, you'll find human beings, just as human as you and I, engaging in altered states of consciousness.

I'll take the example of eastern religion, for instance. What I've sort of come to realize in thinking about all of this is that even though some people may call themselves Buddhist or Hindu, they may have taken upon this label in the same way a Christian has inherited his/her religion through tradition, a set of parents, a geographical area, etc. Likewise, there are people in India whose religion is bestowed upon them in the very same way. However, it was once said by the Buddha that the number of people who've experienced "nirvana" or the "mystical experience" can be counted on the fingers of one hand. That's not meant to be taken literally, but to give an idea of how rare this happening occurs when it comes about naturally. Someone who has had this experience of "nirvana" could then see through the various misconceptions surrounding the religion, and what I'm implying here is that most people who call themselves Buddhist or Hindu have, most likely, not had this religious experience.

Now, you may stop and think, "What you wrote seems a variation of the comment they are not really believers and so therefore I disown them and remove them from the group."

I can see how it may seem that way, sort of like a "No true Scotsman" informal fallacy. However, I will point out that this is in no way a No True Scotsman fallacy, because what must be understood is that this state of mind which is striven for in Hinduism or Buddhism are transcendent of the religions themselves, because it's ultimately a phenomenon in consciousness that anyone, despite their religious background or lack thereof, has the potential for. I mention this because the very goal of these religions and all sects of Buddhism is essentially one and the same thing. It is an altered state of mind in which this insight manifests. Some monks spend their entire lives practicing disciplines in order to attain this insight, and I'd even wager many have died without ever approaching it, and perhaps they receive it at death. I want to make this distinction quite clear, because if you have had this insight, then suddenly all the misconceptions surrounding your religion become clearly transparent and therefore could be disregarded. So, each unique sect of Buddhism, if you look into the matter, you'll find are simply a variety of disciplines which each aim towards the same goal. As one guru put it, "Paths are many, truth is one." 

So, this is not anything at all like Christians and Jehovah's witnesses arguing as to which religion is the "correct interpretation," because unlike these religions, Buddhism does not espouse such concepts to be muddled, misinterpreted, misconstrued, handed down from generation to generation to be twisted, misremembered and so forth and so on. What the western religious churches are peddling is high abstraction, a series of concepts which require you to believe based on "faith," and so their whole notion of reality is heavily distorted into these various concepts, and each Christian or Jehovah's witness then understands their religion through the lens of their own individual eisegesis.

Now, Buddhism, on the other hand, is based not on a series of concepts but an experience. A phenomenon in consciousness that can potentially happen to anyone. It is not a "personal experience," because although this phenomenon is often spoken about in religious terms and given labels such as "samadhi," "satori," or "nirvana," it is often described as an "impersonal experience" or a "transpersonal experience" because there are motifs or universal themes within this peculiar experience that are not reducible to the individual. So, then you see although someone might call themself a Buddhist or Hindu this doesn't necessarily mean that they have had the "insight" which after all is the very goal of these religions. So, by this distinction, you could say that Siddartha Gautama was not a Buddhist, but a Buddha. Buddha, as you may know, is the title given to anyone who has "awakened" or has been "enlightened."

You know, Buddhists don't go around in the fashion of Jehovah's witnesses telling people they "ought to believe." The point I was trying to make is that the goal of Buddhism is an experience in which you can have for yourself so you don't have to quibble over concepts inside a book. It's when you have to rely on a series of ideas that things can become vague, misconstrued, and this then leads to a vast array of misconception.

Now, you might be thinking, "What the hell is a mystical experience, anyway?! This sounds a lot like the Christian who tells people God is real because they feel god inside them."

I admit, it does sound a lot like that, and I constantly have to make clear distinctions, because if you have not had the experience, then you have no way of interpreting it. Of course, I realize that most people, atheists and theists alike, have probably not have had an experience like this. If you have not had the experience, then you're like Freud in his response to Romain Rolland when he couldn't find any reason to believe that such an experience exists because he could not find it within himself, and so the "oceanic feeling" Rolland mentioned to him only appeared as a footnote in two of Freud's books. The experience by its very nature seems to exceed the very limits of one's expectations and understanding. So, you see, if you have not had this experience, then you are, in a way, intellectually set-up to doubt such an experience exists in the first place, and most people don't realize this possibility in consciousness exists. 

So, I want to make it clear that this is not like when a Christian says, "I feel God in my heart," the sort of comment which prompts Matt Dillahunty to retort, "Well, maybe you should go see a doctor." In other words, I agree, you don't want to metaphysicize heartburn. Now, what I'm referring to is a tried-and-true phenomenon that isn't necessarily associated with religion, but has over the years become intertwined. It is a phenomenon in consciousness. I believe religions like Hinduism and Buddhism have surrounded themselves around this phenomenon. 

Now, I agree that the Christian might be basing a kind of metaphysical aspect to a subtle or vague feeling that he or she has, but I wouldn't compare this phenomenon to that. As I mentioned before, it doesn't necessarily have to do with a religion. More contemporarily, it has been written about in terms of "ego death" in the psychedelic community, the Teilhardian "Omega Point," "Cosmic Consciousness" as described by Richard M. Bucke, "peak experience" in the writings of Abraham Maslow, "collective unconscious" in Jungian terminology, the "oceanic feeling" by Romain Rolland in his letter to Sigmund Freud, and so forth and so on. This is something that if you were to experience it, you'd know without an iota of doubt that what you were experiencing was orders of magnitude different from your ordinary consciousness.

I want to add one more paragraph on distinction for good measure, because I know even with all these details that I've laid out so far, and the details I will add, a person might still leave this blog with a vague notion of what a "mystical experience" may be. I suppose what I'm really trying to get at here is that there is a phenomenon in consciousness that most people don't realize exists, atheists and theists alike, so if you're unfamiliar with these experiences, then when you try and intellectualize what it may be, you may come to a conclusion such as this example I'll post below. It's a response I got from a fellow chatter here by the name of Joan Denoo, and I really hope she doesn't mind I use her post because it's a perfect example, and I'll quote her below as well as link to the thread where the post appears.
The mystical experience is very much a feature of Homo sapiens. There exists a sense of wonder, just seeing water turn into ice or gas, or watching sunrises and sunsets, or the different features of the sky! Then, when one observes birth and death, a more mystical event does not exist as far as I am concerned. None of these involves a god/s. Nature, with all its diversity, presents wonder upon wonder.
I feel she's equating mystical experience with the so-called profundity in the experience of witnessing a birth or death, a sunrise or sunset, watching a grand waterfall, etc. While these experience may be profound in their own way, I would not compare this to a classical mystical experience which up to this point has been discussed mostly in a religious context, but has made its way into contemporary discourse in the form of "ego death" and "Cosmic consciousness" as I've mentioned. Rather, the mystical experience can be better described as a panesthesia. I will go into this a bit more in depth a little later, but these individual experiences you may have thought were "profound" are mere aspects in the mystical experience, because in the mystical experience, you have an overwhelming impression of having all experience at once. Now, of course, it's one to simply say this, it's quite another thing to experience, and that's precisely the point. That most people don't even realize this type of experience is even possible. It truly is a phenomenon in consciousness, and I hopefully I can give you a better idea of what this is like through words, but obviously words fail and the perfect metaphor is yet to be coined, and I believe that's why this experience is so esoteric and peripheral in mainstream society, it's why I believe mysticism is so disconnected from contemporary mainstream religion.

If you want a physiological explanation as to what may be going on, Dr. Rick Strassman speculates in his book "DMT: The Spirit Molecule" that this colossal transformation in consciousness may be the result of an natural induction of endogenous N,N-DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine). Most atheists here might be familiar with DMT, but if you're not, I'll briefly go into some details about it. N,N-DMT is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that is elaborated in the pineal gland also called the "third eye" gland. It's now known that concentrations of DMT spike during the REM stage of sleep and also during a NDE (near-death experience), so DMT may account for the "white light" or the "I saw my life flash before my eyes" phenomena. Now, another detail that must be emphasized is that DMT is also considered the world's most powerful entheogen known to exist in nature. Even more powerful than LSD, salvia, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, or PCP is DMT and there it is right behind your eyebrows. DMT is also a schedule I illegal substance in the U.S. and also highly illegal in most countries despite the fact that it occurs naturally within the human brain.

These things are automatically criticized with comments such as, "So God is merely a psychedelic hallucination?" It's not as simple as that. You see, once you associate the word "drug" into a topic like this or the word "God," for that matter, then it muddies the entire conversation and leaves everything quite ambiguous. Because most people don't realize that the mind rests on a chemical foundation that is "drugs." More accurately, I think what this compound is doing is giving us a glimpse into more dense states of neuronal activity than people experience in an ordinary state of consciousness. DMT is a neurotransmitter which attaches itself to serotonergic receptor sites throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems. So, obviously these areas of the brain are being filled with "information." So, instead of a neurological chaos, what I think may be happening, to connect this to Perennial Philosophy and if Strassman is right that DMT is behind this phenomenon, then it's as though we're given a glimpse into a state of mind in which the connectivity of neural pathways are being lit up to such a degree that the experiential content becomes seemingly incomprehensible. In other words, it may be our own minds, but our own minds lit up to such a degree that the informational content of the experience becomes seemingly incomprehensible, and it's this seemingly incomprehensibility that has been interpreted throughout the ages as "God," "Allah," Brahman," "soul," "Shekhina," "Cosmic consciousness," "Nonduality," "ego death," etc. Well, at least that's what Perennial Philosophy is proposing.

So, what Perennial Philosophy of the sort Aldous Huxley wrote about is suggesting is that religion my be a by-product of this phenomenon. That Christ, Muhammad, Gautama, etc. were all mortal men that sometime in their lifetime had this experience of "cosmic consciousness" and when they began to speak about their experiences, each became the founder of a religion. However, in the case of Christianity, Christ was pedestalized in that he was the only "divine being" vouchsafe this experience or at least this is how the religion is expressed today. It's realized in Buddhism that everyone is a potential Buddha, that we all have the potential for this experience.

I want to speak about some aspects about this experience that will make this a bit more clear. There is attributes of this experience one might ascribe to the "Christian God," and I'll define what I mean by that. It's often said that the Christian God is omniscient. Well, in this experience, there's a feeling of what I've come to call "intuitive omniscience." It's a kind of sense that everything is known or a presence of an all-knowingness. It's a kind of panesthesia, if you will, in that you have the impression of having all experience at once. This is more commonly expressed as the feeling of "being one with everything." However, it's not like an intellectual omniscience where at the height of this experience you could be asked any question and be able to give an answer, you see, because it's purely intuitive.

An analogy that I think has been somewhat useful involves a TV set. Imagine you're about to watch the debut episode of the newest "The Walking Dead." The TV displays patterns by turning of RGB signals here, and leaving others off there, and this then creates the current image on the screen. But the potential for your TV to project these patterns were, in a sense, always there, even before the show was filmed. What happens when you display all possible patterns? In other words, when you turn on all RGB signals? You end up with a white screen.  Now, I'm not saying that perhaps this is what people are talking about in the "white light" of the near-death experience, but it's an interesting way of looking at it. However, something like this must be true to account for the experiential content of the mystical experience. It's as though you've turned on all the neural pathways of the brain, and what you are left with is the challenge of trying to describe an experience that, in some sense, contains the entire gamut of experience happening at once. If Strassman is correct that N,N-DMT is the culprit of these so-called "mystical experiences," then perhaps this is what DMT is capable of doing. It's capable of drastically launching you into this colossal altered state of consciousness in which feels as though all neural pathways have been ignited, and this then causes the "seeming incomprehensibility" that I've been trying to articulate here, the feeling that you're somehow experiencing all the experiences there is to experience at once. The feeling of having thought every thought, done everything over and over infinite times. An ultimate ennui that one could scarcely imagine what it's like unless they've experienced it for themselves. 

This experience is also accompanied by a very emotionally-charged feeling of what I could only call "agapé" using the Christian word in attempt to describe this powerful emotion. Agapé is a Christian word that means the love Christ felt. It's the love as described in the bible as being infinite, unconditional, ever-forgiving, and spiritual or maternal in nature rather than sexual. When you're actually having this experience and you're feeling this overwhelming love, you can have the impression that the entire world is emotionally asleep from the vantage point of this immense feeling of agapé. As an aside, and I won't get too deeply into this, but Sam Harris thought that because DMT competes with serotonin for the receptor site, and because serotonin is the neurotransmitter that neuroscientists associate most with "emotion," that perhaps what DMT may be doing is a kind of overhaul or an overcharge of the receptor site to cause this impression of unfathomable bliss and love. As for the feeling of "oneness," Sam Harris also speculates that perhaps this impression of panesthesia may be due to the heightened neuronal activity that gives way to this feeling of having all experience at once.

Now, if you consider this so-called "mystical experience" as the root of the religious impulse in our species, then you can posit that because Christ was pedestalized, and because Christianity throughout the centuries has become so contorted due to Christ's account or the Bible's testament of it being muddled, misinterpreted, misconstrued, handed down from generation to generation to be twisted, misremembered, edited and re-edited to the point where, if you put forth that mystical experience was the root from which Christianity sprung, obviously the original connection to mystical experience has been completely squeezed out and forgotten of the religion today, and those attributes which originally described aspects of this experience somehow got distorted to be applied to a monotheistic God entity who is omniscient in the intellectual sense of the word, and all-loving, etc. instead of those same attributes describing features of this so-called "mystical experience" as a phenomenon in consciousness.

I don't want to make it seem as though Christianity was completely unaware of this phenomenon of higher consciousness. If you'd look into Christian mysticism, you'll find that it was esoterically practiced from c.100 A.D. and onward onto the 17th century. You'll find that these mystics practiced disciplines such as quietism which is quite akin to the practices in Zen Buddhism that are capable of inducing these altered states. In fact, in Christian mysticism, this altered state was referred to as "Christ consciousness" or a glimpse into the "Beatific vision." Obviously, today mysticism or a theosophical approach to the nature of consciousness have been completely divorced from the practices that go on in the contemporary Christian churches or any other mainstream western religious church. As I said before, what they're peddling now is high abstraction.

I'm not sure if I made it clear, but if I hadn't, I'd like to emphasize it once more and that is you don't have to be part of a religion to get this experience. It can happen to anyone. It's simply that throughout the centuries, it has become interwoven with religion, and in fact, religion could be seen as a repercussion of this experience. I'll leave you guys with a talk given by Alan Watts on the topic of Perennial Philosophy. 

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Comment by Matt--Lukin on June 26, 2014 at 12:33pm

I appreciate your post, Michael Penn. I agree that we've all got a driving curiosity, and while theists may fill it with a "deity," as you say, the atheist will simply accept that there is ignorance.

However, my interest in the "mystical experience" and one thing I've been trying to convey here is that it's not simply a poetic term to describe the emotional feedback in witnessing a birth or death, etc. It's rather a tried-and-true phenomenon in consciousness that most people, atheists and theists alike, have not experienced.

I mentioned this "panesthesia" or "intuitive omiscience" that seems to accompany this experience. Well, it's a feeling of there being no mystery, and so therefore one might find themselves devoid of curiosity. Alan Watts used to say, "Brahman is never an object of its own knowledge," and he'd often use the analogy, "Just as a knife cannot cut itself, a fire cannot burn itself, a light cannot illuminate itself."

Well, in this very same way, there is no longer a "hole" to be curious about. Now, I'm sure there may be some kind of neuroscientific way to put this, but the truth is these type of states haven't properly been studied. So, if I may borrow some Hindu terms, "samadhi" is said to be the experience of "Brahman."

Alan Watts - What Buddhism is About

If you listen to this clip here, the "final Self of all selves" is equated to Brahman. Brahman, as Watts put it, is the vast infinite potential, the "that which there is no whicher," and how can someone have an experience of that? It's said to extend forever and ever, and yet people claim an experience that encompasses all of it. I believe that the nature of this "Self" may be fractal. A fractal means that you have a repetitious pattern in which the essence of each particular section of the pattern is expressed along scales (scales as in size).

So, it may be that this experience of "samadhi" is a fractal resonance of Brahman. So, you are not the "whole" as an entity, but consciousness can reflect the "whole." I suppose, from a neuroscientific standpoint, it's as though all neurons are firing to give such an impression of having had every thought, every experience, etc. Or as Watts says, "Ultimate consciousness." 

In this experience, there is no more hole to fill, you see. Curiosity and ignorance seem to have dissolved completely, but this is not a kind of intellectual omniscience as I pointed out in the post. Why would it be? Why would one have an ultimate understanding in terms of mathematics or abstract concepts? It is purely intuitive, a knowingness that involves no concept except when you try and speak about it as I'm doing here. 

Lao-tsu once said, "The dao that can be named is not the eternal dao." In other words, Hindus, in naming this fractal resonance of the whole "Brahman" have only done that for purposes of discussion. You'll find that a lot of eastern scripture is in dialectic form. But Hindus know that whatever it is that "is," is truly nameless and eternal. 

Well, I'm sure a lot of that probably won't make sense, but that's why I post the video and also have left the post sprinkled throughout with links that define some of the lingo here, and hopefully that helps. Also, you might notice that when you originally read my post, it was a bit jumbled. I've taken the time to separate the paragraphs to make it easier to read.

Comment by Michael Penn on June 26, 2014 at 8:38am

I agree with Matt in so much that if you say "I feel god in my heart" I would tell you to go see a doctor. In the KJV they should feel god in the reins, or kidneys.

In my lifetime I have studied cosmic conciousness in many forms but choose today to make it all very clear in simple terms. The theist of any world view system believes he was born with a "hole" in his heart, and only his deity can fill that hole. What he is searching for is knowledge of all that is. It's an impossible quest but to many religious belief will fill this "hole" you have inside you. This can become so strong that you even kill for your beliefs. Just look backwards at history. It's so important to appear to have all the answers and all knowledge.

To do otherwise is to admit that we are born not knowing, and that this fact is the great "hole" that is within us, and that we are looking to fill. This is the driving force of life and the quest of mankind throughout many cultures, systems, and world views.

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