Science and Mysticism together
Some phenomena or fields of experience relevant to mind/consciousness and theology.
Dreams and visions
The Near Death Experience
Psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, neuroscience
Meditation, altered states of consciousness, direct cognition
Memories of past lives (re-incarnation?)
Some of the fields listed are popularly associated with
or ‘the paranormal’ and simply dismissed as pseudo-science or worse by
sceptics. I avoid the use or the word ‘supernatural’ because of its association
with superstition and sensational journalism. I take the view that if something
happens, however rarely, it is natural. ‘Paranormal’ carries much the same
overtones so I prefer the term ‘parapsychology’ which is a recognised, but
not widely acknowledged, academic research field. The sceptics are often
aggressively strident in their comments; many don’t even bother to examine
the experimental evidence for themselves.
Anyone wishing to make a serious examination of these
topics is urged to
observe a few important guidelines:
Adopt a critical open-mindedness rather than a rigid scepticism;
Consider the integrity of the participants and investigators involved;
Try to distinguish the raw experience from the language used to describe it;
Remember that the experience may not easily be described in everyday language;
Watch out for inappropriately borrowed or ill-defined terminology.
The guiding ethic for the reader who undertakes the research should be the seeking of wholeness.
Many have spoken and written about their intense spiritual, mystical,
or religious experiences (a presence, light, warmth within and around,
great joy, awareness of dead relatives etc). The language of education
and the arts may use expressions such as ‘peak experience’ and ‘flow’.
Widely based surveys of Western cultures have found that a high proportion
of the population, up to 70% in some cases, have had at least one such
experience. Two basic types of spiritual experience have been identified,
the numinous and the mystical. People from a religious background reporting
numinous experiences often felt a guiding supernatural presence calling them
to a particular way in life. Those from agnostic or atheistic backgrounds
tended to report experiences such as extra-sensory perception, or altered
states of consciousness. The mystical experiences were more likely feelings
of transcendent meaning, deep insight, great well-being, a sense of the total
unity of everything. Subjects may find the experiences beyond the power of
words to describe. Many studies link mystical experiences to a greater
capacity for creativity.
Schizophrenic and manic depressive patients also see visions, hear voices,
presences and receive instructions about tasks they must do. Although there
are similarities between the experiences of the normal and mentally ill, in general
the descriptions of psychotic patients are more disturbing, negative and bizarre,
both in the way they are expressed and in their content. The mentally healthy
are more likely than psychotics to be able to integrate their spiritual experiences
positively into their everyday life.
For mystics, a very slight effort or departure from normal conditions
their latent or subliminal powers to emerge and occupy the mental field.
Such a mobile threshold may make a person a genius, a lunatic, or a saint,
depending on the character of the emerging powers.
The Near Death Experience.
There are many well documented cases of NDEs experienced by subjects
death from accident, or during surgery, some of the latter being judged clinically
dead. They report feelings of great peace, passing through a tunnel ‘into the light’,
and being in a beautiful place where they may meet a mystical person whom
they normally identify with a sacred figure of their particular faith.
However, NDEs are experienced by the religious and non-religious alike.
There is sometimes a life review in which the subjects experience all the
hurts caused others during their lifetime. At the end they may be told the
time is not yet come for them and they must return home. The experience
is usually positive and life-changing. NDEs are considered by some to be
evidence for the persistence of some form of consciousness after death.
NDEs may also be induced when the brain is deprived of oxygen, by certain
anaesthetics, and in times of severe stress. Paul’s vision on the Damascus
road appears to have many of the features of an NDE. It involved both
an experience of light and a voice. In his own account, given in 2 Corinthians
12 v1-4, he had a vivid experience of journeying into ‘the third heaven’ and
there, to quote Marcus Borg, ‘experiencing things that are unutterable,
that may not be put into words because they transcend the categories of language’.
It has been found that there is a region in the temporal lobes of the
which is associated with spiritual experience. People exposed to evocatively
spiritual or religious words or conversation show heightened temporal lobe activity.
People prone to epileptic seizures in the temporal lobes also report an
abnormally high level of profound spiritual experiences.
Stimulation of the temporal lobes by a magnetic field usually produces
more of a range of mystical experiences. Rhythmic drumming, used in a wide
range of spiritual rituals, excites the temporal lobes. We can see a possible
connection here to the way in which people throughout time have communicated
directly with their gods and with their spirits through dance, ritual, ecstasies and trances.
The temporal lobes are closely linked to the limbic system, the brain's
and memory centre. Stimulation of one produces increased activity in the other.
Thus even very short temporal lobe spiritual experiences can have a strong,
emotional, and life-changing influence. The involvement of the limbic system also
demonstrates the importance of an emotional factor in religious or spiritual experience
as opposed to belief alone.
The above observations suggest that part of the temporal lobes may be
to our spirituality, that we may be hard-wired for the phenomenon. This area has
been called the God Spot. This is not to suggest anything about the existence of
God, but it may be nature's way of engaging us in the great existential questions.
William James thought certain medical materialists failed to distinguish
two very important questions. What is the nature and biological origin of
spiritual experience? And what is its meaning or significance? Consider,
for example, the fact that although stimulating the optic cortex can
cause visual experiences, that does not prove that vision is hallucinatory.
William James’ point is nicely illustrated by the case of the medieval
mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. She found much religious inspiration from
her rapturous visions of shimmering lights and stars, sometimes moving in
spirals or describing geometric figures. Critical examination of her accounts
leaves little doubt that her visions were of migrainous origin.
Evidently we must be cautious in the inferences we draw from mystical/religious
experiences about the nature of mind and reality. But for the subjects their
experiences may carry meaning and inspiration.
There is a large range of alternative therapies practiced under many
descriptions. They often use language which borrows terminology from elsewhere
in science or medicine, and which may therefore inhibit communication with
‘outsiders’. Physical aids such as pendulums or electronic boxes may be used;
to an observer their precise role may not be clear, but they may in some
cases serve as a kind of catalyst by reinforcing favourable mental states.
While claims to success are made for many therapies, the evidence is
frequently anecdotal rather than statistically supported. Some therapies are
probably of healing value as placebos.
Acupuncture, now fairly well accepted, is one of a group termed Bioenergetic
Medicine. This group is claimed to be of primary relevance in treating people
whose chronic symptoms are not of established disease, who therefore do not
show recognised diagnostic indications, and who may not respond to drug therapy.
In such cases bioenergetic medicine aims to remove blocks preventing the
normal self-healing function of the immune system.
Spiritual healing has been widely practiced over the ages across all
As in all alternative therapies the mental states of healer and subject may be
significant factors for outcomes.
I believe that certain successful alternative therapies will eventually
as having a place in the field of psychoneuroimmunology.
Many people claim telepathic and similar experiences, for example, an
of the sudden death of a loved one far away, the timing of which has subsequently
been accurately verified. Such anecdotal, individual events are of no value as
controlled experiments although they can provide useful experiential evidence
if they can be assembled into categories by occurrence type. Parapsychologists
have therefore devised a number of standard experiments with strict protocols,
approved by expert peers, including sceptics, which can be carried out by any
qualified investigator in suitable laboratory conditions.
In one such trial there are 2 direct participants, a sender and a receiver
locations. The receiver is in a darkened room, translucent filters over the eyes,
with white noise being fed through headphones. This procedure minimises the
normal environmental stimuli. The sender is shown a still picture or video clip
and asked to send it telepathically to the receiver who continually reports aloud
about his/her mental experience. After about 30 minutes the receiver is shown
4 images or videos, only one of which is the actual one used, and attempts to
match his own perception most closely. Chance suggests the success rate
should be 25% whereas the mean success rate found in some 2500 sessions by
many different investigators over an extended period up to 1985 was 33.2%.
The probability of such a deviation occurring by chance if there were no
enhancement factor present is less than 1 part in 10 to the power 15. Similar
results are found in continuing trials. It seems that our minds are not
confined spatially to our physical bodies. Other experiments provide evidence
for precognition, confounding common-sense ideas about time. Not surprisingly,
there is some correlation between success rates and personality type.
Another type of investigation gives evidence for telepathic communication
between empathetic subjects such as identical twins or lovers. They are placed
in separate electromagnetically screened rooms and wired up to brain wave
recorders. When invited to empathise their brain waves are found to synchronise.
In another study, when one subject’s brain is stimulated, for example aurally,
the other’s brain activity responds correspondingly with statistical significance.
Similar results are reported using animal siblings which have been raised together.
Parapsychologists like to describe this as distant intentionality to
immediate religious inference. Double blind trials of prayer for hospitalised
subjects have been conducted which clearly show that those prayed for tended
to have better outcomes. A group of heart patients needed fewer interventions,
fewer potent drugs, and showed lower incidence of pulmonary oedema. There
is some evidence that prayer which is directed generally towards a patient’s
well-being may be more effective than, say, ‘asking God’ for a specific cure.
Prayer has also been found to influence the rate of cell growth in yeast
and other organisms. In one series the best scores were obtained by the spiritual
healers and physicians; students with little interest in prayer/healing got random
results. Other studies demonstrate that an investigator can influence the
physiology and emotional state of a subject at a distance.
It would seem reasonable to infer that healing prayer is a phenomenon
psyche, that non-locality of mind is involved, and that the commitment of the
one praying matters rather than any particular religious belief.
Meditation is practiced widely in many different
ways, ranging from the most
simple forms of relaxation to the highly disciplined lifelong path of Zen. It is
well established that meditators are less likely than others to suffer from
hypertension, are less likely to be hospitalised through illness, and are likely
to recover more quickly after medical interventions. Meditators claim a calmer
disposition and heightened senses. There would seem to be here a self-influence
on the immune system, which is consistent with other findings in psychoneuroimmunology.
Mindfulness as an aid to recovery is practised in several US hospitals and
meditation is accepted by US Medical Insurance Companies as having actuarial significance.
Deep meditation may lead to altered states of consciousness, such as
that of pure,
contentless, consciousness, which have been validated as widely occurring across
cultures and time. Experiences of light, such as shafts of light passing from the
head to the zenith, umbrellas of rays, concentric rings, and the music of the spheres
are common to many cultures and times; they would seem to be built-in structures
of human consciousness. Although we can’t draw definite conclusions as to the
ultimate significance.of such experiences, there can be little doubt that they
could account for much religious inspiration.
Some claim that through deep meditation it is possible to refine the
as an instrument for research into the nature of reality. This may be what
is happening in reports of ‘direct cognition’. Working in the early decades of last
century, C W Leadbeater and A Besant, two theosophists trained in the use of a
Yogic Siddhi technique, used the technique to experience and describe highly
magnified images of atoms and molecules, including what they termed the
Ultimate Physical Atom. They described certain forms, now called isotopes,
unknown at the time, and one element (Promethium) not discovered by
conventional science until1945. Stephen Phillips, a contemporary theoretical
physicist, claims to have validated much of their work, including the discovery
of remarkable similarities between the ultimate physical atom and features
of current fundamental theories. Phillips describes how subjects experience
visual images of objects too small for human sight, giving the impression the
observer has shrunk to the scale of these objects. Barbara McClintock,
awarded a Nobel Prize for her 1940s work in genetics, had similar spontaneous
experiences of micro-viewing and becoming one with neurospora (a mould).
Other contemporary scientists are known to use these techniques, as even
Goethe, Newton, Einstein and Descartes are said to have done.
Memories of Past Lives. Some subjects have shown
of past lives of people they could not have known about and sometimes it has
been possible to verify certain details. In some cases the memories have
been revealed during hypnotic psychotherapy. At least some of these are likely
to have been examples of multiple personality.
Belief in reincarnation is common in some cultures. Children may recount
details of a life with another family in a different village of which they or
their own family could have no knowledge and subsequently the circumstances
are verified. Ian Stevenson has built up a data base of some 2500 cases where
birthmarks and birth defects are correlated with childhood memories of past
lives. He has published a detailed analysis of 225 cases. Birthmarks and defects
are considered important because they provide evidence beyond that of fallible
memories of informants. Apart from memories and birthmarks there may be
corresponding ‘announcing dreams’ where a deceased person appears and
expresses the intention of being reborn to particular parents. Violent deaths
are remembered in 51% of the cases. In 9 cases the subject remembered
death by shooting, usually by a bullet through the head. Here the smaller
birthmarks corresponded to the entry wound and the larger marks to the exit.
A number of these cases were verifiable through medical documents.
Stevenson finds that the odds are high against chance as an explanation for
the birthmarks. He concludes that the work strongly suggests, but does not prove,
an influence by a deceased person on the embryo of someone who will be born later
and have memories of events in the life of that person;
for these cases reincarnation seems to him a possibility to be taken seriously.
Some mediums, in what appear to be altered states of consciousness,
information from a mentor who will sometimes claim to belong to another age
or world. The medium’s voice is usually distinctly changed. Observers present
may see apparitions. Some mediums have written substantial texts
recording the wisdom and /or healing instructions they have received. In some
cases the detail of the information and the language of its expression are not
consistent with the education or life experience of the medium. There is a
genuine challenge here to our understanding of mind.
Acknowledgements and Further Reading
On World Views, Science and Spirituality:
C J S Clarke, Reality Through the Looking Glass, Floris Books, 1996. See also his web site at www.scispirit.com
Peter Russell, From Science to God, Pre-Publication Edition, 2000
Scientific and Medical Network Reviews, published 3 times a year. See also the SMN web site at www.scimednet.org
SMN/John Templeton Foundation Project, ‘Science, Religion and Consciousness’. See Project Booklet available on SMN web site.
Henryk Skolimowski, The Participatory Mind, Arkana Penguin, 1994
On Spirituality and Consciousness:
Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall, Spiritual Intelligence—The Ultimate Intelligence, Bloomsbury 2000. I have drawn particularly from material presented by Zohar and Marshall on theories of consciousness, mystical/religious experiences, and neuroscience.
Richard Broughton, Parapsychology, Rider 1992
Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe, Harper Edge 1997. See also his web site at www.psiresearch.com
On Healing Prayer:
Larry Dossey, Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, Harper 1995.
On Direct Cognition:
Stephen M Phillips, ESP of Quarks and Superstrings, New Age International 1999. I have drawn from a review by Peter Stewart in the SMN’s Network No.75, April 2001.
On Memories of Past Lives:
Ian Stevenson, Reincarnation and Biology, Praeger 1997. I have drawn from a review by David Lorimer in the SMN’s Network No. 65, December 1997.
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