Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Experiencing Cosmic Oneness

As we've seen, the body-sharing experience is entirely consistent with what we know about the human mind, so we have no need for supernatural explanations involving ESP or “the spirit plane.” But when I point this out to devout spiritualists, the answer I often get is two-fold: a supernatural answer is fully consistent with the ancient principles of Tantra, and my explanation fails to account for the less common, but more profound, experience of "cosmic transcendence," aka "oneness with the universe."

In some ways, however, this last point is easier to answer. As I described in the last couple of posts, the brain has systems that are devoted to maintaining maps of our bodies (including clothing, tools, vehicles, and other bodily extensions at any given moment), the positions of our limbs (including any tools we may be holding), and all of our internal states, such as pressure, pain, heat, cold, tumescence, touch, friction, and the deflection of hair follicles. These maps may have flexible boundaries, but they do have boundaries, which draw a very clear distinction between us and the rest of the universe.

Up until now, we have been looking at what happens when we saturate these maps with sensory data in such a way that those boundaries expand to include someone else, who seems quite literally to become part of us. We’ve seen how and why this can happen. But what happens if the parts of the brain that keep track of your boundaries shut down entirely? Can you function without a system that knows where you end and the rest of the universe begins? What would it feel like?

If my couples are any guide, this is a moderately rare phenomenon in Tantra, but it is well known in the annals of psychology, particularly in accounts of psychedelic drug use and of religious mysticism. Here’s an account from a paper written by Walter N. Pahnke way back in 1967, on “LSD and Religious Experience”:
  [The] focus of interest … has been called by various names: psychedelic, peak, transcendental, or mystical. For the sake of this discussion we shall refer to it as the psychedelic mystical or experimental mystical experience. Its psychological characteristics have been described elsewhere … and will be only briefly summarized here. 
  These characteristics, nine in number, were derived from a study of the literature of spontaneous mystical experiences reported throughout world history from almost all cultures and religions. In studying accounts of these strange, unusual experiences, an attempt was made to extract the universal psychological characteristics as free from interpretation as possible. Scientific evidence indicates that these universal characteristics derived from spontaneous mystical experiences also precisely describe experimental psychedelic ones. The nine characteristics can be listed as follows:
  1. Unity is a sense of cosmic oneness achieved through positive ego-transcendence. Although the usual sense of identity or ego fades away, consciousness and memory are not lost; instead, the person becomes very much aware of being part of a dimension much vaster and greater than himself. In addition to the route of the "inner world" where all external sense impressions are left behind, unity can also be experienced through the external world, so that a person reports that he feels a part of everything that is (e.g., objects, other people, nature or the universe), or, more simply, that "all is one."  
  2. Transcendence of time and space means that the subject feels beyond past, present and future and beyond ordinary three-dimensional space in a realm of eternity or infinity.
  3. Deeply felt positive mood contains the elements of joy, blessedness, peace and love to an overwhelming degree of intensity, often accompanied by tears.
  4. Sense of sacredness is a non-rational, intuitive, hushed, palpitant response of awe and wonder in the presence of inspiring realities. The main elements are awe, humility and reverence, but the terms of traditional theology or religion need not necessarily be used in the description. 

  5. The noetic quality, as named by William James, is a feeling of insight or illumination that is felt on an intuitive, non-rational level and has a tremendous force of certainty and reality. This knowledge is not an increase in facts, but is a gain of insight about such things as philosophy of life or sense of values. 

  6. Paradoxicality refers to the logical contradictions that become apparent if descriptions are strictly analyzed. A person may realize that he is experiencing, for example, an "identity of opposites," yet it seems to make sense at the time, and even afterwards. 

  7. Alleged ineffability means that the experience is felt to be beyond words, non-verbal, impossible to describe, yet most persons who insist on the ineffability do in fact make elaborate attempts to communicate the experience. 

  8. Transiency means that the psychedelic peak does not last in its full intensity, but instead passes into an afterglow and remains as a memory. 

  9. Persisting positive changes in attitudes and behavior are [claimed] toward self, others, life, and the experience itself.
I’ve seen many later attempts to describe this experience, but none quite as thorough and matter-of-fact as this one (though I do like the touch of snarkiness in Pahnke’s 7th point). And as Pahnke and others have pointed out, these elements are very consistent across reports of religious experiences from all cultures and eras, as well as the reports of psychedelic drug users.

The religious literature is revealing. Depending on the religious and cultural context, this experience can be produced through some combination of prolonged dancing, spinning (think of “whirling dervishes”), fasting, meditation, prayer, self-flagellation, loss of blood, fever, exhaustion, seizures, fumes, alcohol, and drugs (e.g., peyote), along with, in most cases, an expectation or strong desire for spiritual enlightenment. The archetypal case is the religious mystic drugging, tormenting, and exhausting his body and mind until the desired experience occurs, but cases have also been recorded of the event happening entirely unsought to people during starvation, sleep deprivation, seizures, or bouts of high fever, such as that brought on by meningitis.

One thing LSD made clear to researchers is that the parts of the brain that normally keep us separate from the world can be turned off, and that the effect of doing so is exactly the same as the religious experience of mystical union with the cosmos. The question of whether this transcendent "mystical" experience is subjective (happening inside the brain) or objective (even if happening in a normally invisible "spiritual" realm) was answered rather decisively: it is a subjective experience caused by chemical changes in the brain.

But LSD research also demonstrated the downside: if anything about the experience frightens the subjects, they will experience a spiral of fear and panic that they can do nothing about, the terrifying “bad trip” of drug legends. There are parallel accounts that predate LSD by centuries, describing cases where people got caught up in a transcendent experience they did not expect and could not control, and found it absolutely terrifying. It appears that the dividing line our brains maintain between the self and everything else, however flexible it may be, is there at least partially to give us a sense of control and to protect us from being overwhelmed by “everything else.”

The Tantric "Set and Setting"

The normal Tantric experience is a reasonable, though probably not ideal, way to trigger this cosmic experience. Judging from my sample, it is more likely to happen if you meditate deeply for long periods, if you experience a greatly extended period of sexual arousal and an unusually powerful and prolonged series of orgasms, and perhaps also if you are tired and/or stoned, if you are still weak and maybe a bit feverish from a case of the flu, and if you do not take a break for food and rest during a long Tantra session.  If you have experienced it once, it seems you are more likely to experience it again.

It also seems from my sample that it is a lot more likely to happen to you if you are seeking, or at least hoping, for the experience. Of the seventeen individuals (from eleven couples) who reported experiencing it, ten had experienced it three times or less, only four say they experience it fairly regularly and only two (Cabot and Marla) have ever experienced it simultaneously as a couple.  In five couples, one of the two partners had had the experience at least once and the other had not.

Is this something you and your partner should pursue? On this, I’m afraid I can’t advise you. This is not something my partner and I have sought or experienced, and I confess that we may both be just too practical and down-to-earth to let go to that extent without the aid of drugs that we’re not willing to take. I personally find being inside both his skin and mine quite enough of an ecstatic out-of-body experience!

However, those with more of a spiritual inclination may well want to pursue it, or at least open themselves more to the possibility of a more transcendental experience. If that describes you, my best suggestion is for you to emulate Cabot and Marla: become expert meditators and treat Tantra as an important part of your meditation, rather than vice versa.  (I will share more with you next month about their experience with Tantra and meditation.)

There’s one thing you can be grateful for if you decide to pursue this option. In all the conversations, correspondence, and research I have done on Tantra, I have not encountered a single hint of a transcendent “bad trip.” It appears that, of all the ways of achieving this altered state of consciousness, Tantra is quite likely the safest. After all, we do everything we can in arranging the Tantric experience to emphasize warmth, peace, safety, trust, and love. You are in the arms of someone who loves you and cares for you, and you are experiencing or have just experienced, wonderful sensations. If all went well enough for you to be experiencing a cosmic connection, it seems certain that you already feel very well pampered, cosseted, relaxed, and protected.

In the study of psychedelic drug use, the nature of the “trip” is said to be determined by “the set and setting” (the individual’s mindset, or beliefs and expectations about the experience, and the physical and esthetic environment). It would be hard to find a more benign “set and setting” than the privacy of a loving couple’s Tantric ritual.

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