Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index
Based on Papers Read at the Symposium on Religious Ecstasy Held at Abo, Finland, on the 26th-28th of August 1981.
Holm, Nils G. (Editor). (1982).
Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.
original, 306 pages. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis XI.
Contents: 20 papers divided
into 4 untitled sections.
Contributors: Nora Ahlberg,
Berglie, Kaj Ulf
Birgitte Sonne, Jorgen Podemann
Excerpt(s): Ecstasy is
derived from a Greek word, with the original meaning of removing
oneself from a given place. By an extended sense of the word,
this implies that the ego is no longer in the physical frame.
In Latin it can be translated by "alienatio". In research
it has come to signify different states of consciousness that
are characterized by unusual achievements, peculiar experiences
and odd behavior. In the Encyclopaedia
of Religion and Ethics from 1912 we have a fairly short but
nonetheless lucid definition as follows: "an abnormal state
of consciousness, in which the reaction of the mind to external
stimuli is either inhibited or altered in character. In its more
restricted sense, as used in mystical theology, it is almost equivalent
to `trance.'" ...
Mystical experiences are perhaps best described
as occurrences through which an individual, in an intensive and
unusual way, is afforded new knowledge of the innermost essence
of the universe. Not infrequently the experience implies some
sort of absorption into the great universal whole. In the case
of ecstasy however, interest is more concentrated on certain mental
changes without any assumptions being made about the constituent
qualities of the experience itself. (Nils G. Holm, Section I,
Ecstasy Research in
the 20th Century, pages 7-8)
... we shall now give further consideration to the
literature on the subject. It transpires that the latter may be
fairly simply divided into different categories depending on the
type of research in question. We have, first of all, a large number
of contributions characterized above all by the analysis and meticulous
description of some phenomenon or occurrence somewhere in the
world, often without any greater aspirations towards a general
explanation of the phenomenon in question. Another group of studies
aims, however, at a theoretical explanation of ecstatic states.
These explanations may of course be very different in character
but the theoretical concepts involved may easily be divided into
two groups: 1) research which attempts to compare ecstasy with
ideas taken from psychiatry or which tries to fit ecstasy into
some classification of mental states, 2) research which applies
an anthropological or social-psychological point of view. There
are of course marginal approaches between the two groups. (Nils
G. Holm, Section I, Ecstasy Research in the 20th Century, page
I would like to direct attention toward a point of
great importance for the problem of how an unspeakable experience
is interpreted and in turn influences new experiences. I have
pointed out in a previous work that a mystic must at some point
have had his first mystic experience and thereby a possible problem
of how to describe with words the "indescribable." It
is this that the former American psychologist Richard Alpert,
now Ram Dass, calls a "labeling conflict."
With what frame of reference is one to interpret an intensive
experience? Ram Dass chose a religious interpretation, accepted
the consequences of this and left his job as an academic teacher.
Such a conflict, however, need not occur. The problem is minimal
if the mystic belongs to a tradition where experiences of this
type are a possibility and indeed something worth striving for.
In that case, there are probably what social psychologists call
significant others in the mystic's environment, who can, with
the aid of tradition, explain the experiences, thereby making
them easy to integrate into the personality and with one's concept
of reality. The problem arises when the mystic does not have access
to a mystic tradition. (Antoon Geels, Section
Experience and the Emergence of Creativity, page 52)
Arbman's interest in hallucinogenic drugs seems less
marked, and perhaps rightly so, as the classic debate on authentic
versus non-authentic or false mysticism, crystallized by Aldous
has become unduly emphasized through the interest of the "flower-power
generation" in drug-induced Altered States of Consciousness
and their claims of mysticism.
I shall not consider this question here but merely
point out that the discovery of endogenic opiates in the human
brain has given this debate a rather new direction. In the light
of recent research it seems that not only the non-authentic but
also the authentic mystical experiences might be connected with
drugs; thus much of the former debate has become superfluous.
In any case, from the perspective of comparative religion the
primary concern is with cultural tradition and interpretation,
although the hallucinogenic drugs have opened up possibilities
for a more experimental design as a complementary development
in this area.
In was in 1973 at the Johns
Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore that a
team of researchers led by Dr. S. H. Snyder
discovered that the human brain contained special opiate receptors,
and soon afterwards another team succeeded in isolating a system
of endorphines and one of the encephalines located in parts of
the brain thought to be connected mainly with emotions. It could
now be asked whether these substances might be a key to the understanding
of the typical euphoric and analgetic effects of
spontaneous, non-drug induced Altered States of Consciousness.
Moreover, it is also known that these natural opiates
cooperate with a transmitter substance in the nervous system of
our brain called serotonine which in its chemical structure resembles
LSD. LSD has been regarded as a key toward understanding Altered
States of Consciousness in the laboratory, with special reference
to the experience of ego-loss. It has also been found that auditory
hallucinations, which are so pronounced in schizophrenia but also
found in religious experiences, correspond
to an increased level of endogenous opiates and can be neutralized
with the opiate antagonist naloxone. (Nora
Ahlberg, Section I, Some
Psycho-physiological Aspects of Ecstasy in Recent Research, pages
That celibacy can also be considered as a "physiological"
ecstasy technique has been almost overlooked by the psychologists
of religion. It has not, to my knowledge, been discussed at length
in the literature. The psychodynamic implications of sublimating
the libido (in Freudian terms) have been discussed, but the vast
majority of all widely-known mystics have been living in celibacy.
In medieval times, when monasteries were common in Europe, mysticism
flourished. When the number of monasteries decreased, mysticism
also declined. Celibacy was of course only one factor of many,
but nevertheless probably an important one. In Hinduism, celibacy
or brahmacarya has always been a highly
emphasized technique. How it works can at the present only be
guessed at. But it is evidence that celibacy must have a profound
influence on hormonal balance in the body.
Some authors, (e.g. Ornstein)
have suggested that, neurologically, religious experiences are
a function of the right hemisphere. From the works of Sperry
and Gazzaniga, among others, we know
that the two brain hemispheres have, in part, very different functions.
... the right hemisphere seems to be the more intuitive,
artistic half of the brain. However, to claim that religious experience
is governed by the right hemisphere would be to jump to conclusions.
from a Physiological Point of View, page 77)
An experience such as the autonomous self displays
two forms. In one form, a person's experience of his body is central
for self-experience. Here we have a subject-object relation between
consciousness and body; the body is experienced as an objectively
given place for consciousness and its activities. In the other
form of autonomous self-experience the subject-object relation
is replaced by the experience that man functions purely as the
subject of action: man experiences himself as functioning as an
integrated psycho-physical organism. This self-experience is not
concentrated in the spatially experienced body, but rather in
the mental experience of oneself as a dynamic unity.
The transition to a dynamic form of autonomous self-experience
has often been compared to a kind of "death-rebirth process".
From my point of view, the best description of this process is
given by Grof in his works on LSD-therapy:
of the Human Consciousness, 1975; The Human
Encounter with Death, 1977 (Joan Halifax
is co-author of this book), and Principles
of LSD Psychotherapy, 1980. What Grof calls rebirth of the
autonomous self is the overcoming of a depressive
state effected by therapy. The depressive state is described in
terms of "oppression" and the overcoming in terms of
"consciousness expansion". This is followed by an ecstatic
experience: increased intensity of consciousness and a positive
This ecstasy is regarded as having two distinct
features in addition to the features that we found in transparent
(1) We found in transparent experience an expansion
of consciousness and an increase in its intensity. Here we find
another relation to time. The experience of pleasure is constant
rather than fleeting; it "goes with time" to use an
often quoted expression. The strength of intensity and the positive
emotional attitude remain as a constant underlying state of consciousness.
This experience, to use a theological expression, gives a character
(2) Another distinguishing feature in this experience
of the rebirth of the self is a transcending in consciousness
towards so called "transpersonal experience". This expression
was introduced by the trend in existential-humanistic psychology
calling itself "transpersonal psychology". By transpersonal
experiences one is to understand experiences of a superpersonal
cosmic unity, i.e., not only the experience of an ultimate dimension
of wholeness and oneness in one's own organism but also that of
the cosmos as a continuous wholeness. (Hans Hof,
Section IV, Ecstasy and Mysticism,
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