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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index


Religious Ecstasy:

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.


ISBN: 91-22-00574-9


Description: Paperback original, 306 pages. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis XI.


Contents: 20 papers divided into 4 untitled sections.


Contributors: Nora Ahlberg, Hans Gunnel Andre, Per-Arne Berglie, Kaj Ulf Drobin, Hjarpe, Hans Hultgard, Tage Ogen, Birgitte Sonne, Jorgen Podemann Sorensen, Wikstrom.


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 10)


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 I, Mystical 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 Zaehner, 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 64-66)


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. (Kaj Ecstasy 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: Realms 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 emotional attitude.

This ecstasy is regarded as having two distinct features in addition to the features that we found in transparent experience:


(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 indelebilis.

(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, pages 245-246)



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