Awe-Inspring Experiences

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Awe inspring experiences:
Learning about them,
Learning from them

Mark Kleiman

This is an invitation to join a project of exploration. Our topic is "awe-inspiring experiences." What should that include?

At the center of interest are the occasional astounding, life-changing, sometimes world-changing experiences of what is encountered as ultimate truth: Moses at the burning bush, Saul on the road to Damascus, the Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

How frequent are such experiences?

What triggers them?

How are they experienced?

What are the correlative brain states?

How do the experiences vary, one from another?

What perceptions and beliefs do those who undergo them bring back, and how consistent across cultures are those perceptions and beliefs?

What are the consequences of such experiences, for those who undergo them and for those around them?

What are the correlates of variations in those consequences?
--Characteristics of the person?
--Of the trigger?
--Of the preparation?
--Of the follow-through?
--Of the social surround?

How lasting are the effects of such experiences, and how does that vary with circumstances?

How often are the changes beneficial, as perceived by the person directly involved and by those surrounding him?

To what extent, and by what means, can such experiences be deliberately induced, or at least have their probability increased, and how do the consequences of sought experiences differ from those of unsought experiences?

What evolutionary function, if any, can be ascribed to the capacity to experience such states? Or does that capacity somehow free-ride on some other set of capacities, capacities that do have direct survival value?

But if we call those full mystical states "Big Awe," what about all the experiences of "little awe?" In what ways are the two sets of states continuous, and in what ways discontinuous? Does it make sense to ask if watching a sunrise or going to church on Good Friday is 1% as awe-inspiring as a Near-Death Experience?

If quantitative relationships hold, are they the same for all measurements, or could a Little-a experience be, say, 10% of Big-A experience cognitively but only 2% of a Big-A experience behaviorally?

Are the two sorts of experiences complements to one another in bringing about lasting personal change?

All those questions are covered by the idea of learning about awe-inspiring experiences. But there is also the question of learning from them.

Those who have had a full mystical experience tend to return from them with claims of knowledge:

--I know that I am one with the universe, and that part of me is infinite.
--I know that the universe is precisely as it should be, and that all will be well.
--I know that it is better to suffer evil than to do evil.
--I know that death is not an evil.

Instead of merely standing with our clipbroards and recording these claims, we might also want to confront them: Are they true? And can they be reconciled with claims of knowledge made on the basis of more ordinary experiences and states of mind: with science, for example, or logic?

It has been said that all Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, and Plato is often thought of as an extreme rationalist. But Plato was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the dialogues are full of direct and indirect references to them.

The beginning of the 21st Century may seem a strange time to be asking these questions. But it seems to me rather a good time. The astonishingly rapid progress in the sciences of the brain and the mind is making it easier every day to study such phenomena, and perhaps to induce them as well.

The second half of the past century added substantially to the number of people with access to plants having potentially awe-inducing properties, such as peyote and the "magic" mushrooms, This happened because the knowledge that had been the preserve of a few isolated cultures spread around the globe. The Twentieth Century also saw for the first time the development of synthetics with similar potentiality, starting with LSD, which may be a chemical relative of the substance used at Eleusis. We may be entering an era in which experiences of profound awe are, at least potentially, available to a wider range of people than has been the case in the past few centuries.

Ask yourself, then: What would the consequences be if the annual number of experiences of profound awe were to double, or triple, or increase fivefold? Would enlightenment start busting out all over? The experience of the 1960s might well give pause to those who would think so.

And there were earlier warnings. The Talmud tells of four rabbis who had mystical experiences. One died on the spot. One went mad. One became an apostate. Only the fourth benefited, becoming a tzaddik (a saint). Rather daunting odds, in a game played for such high stakes.

The Arthurian legend conveys a similar warning. Into the cheerful, noble, and socially useful world of the Round Table comes the Hold Grail, and the result is disaster, both personal and social. The knights whose courage and prowess had served them well -- heroes such as Gawain and Lancelot -- find themselves utterly out of their depth in pursuing a spiritual quest, and the experience of failure leaves them worse off spiritually rather than better off. Parsifal, the holy idiot, alone achieves the vision, though Galahad gets a glimpse of it. All the rest fail utterly, and their fellowship is broken.

Will improved technologies for generating awe lead to similar disaster among those ill-prepared to deal with awe-inspiring experience and its aftermath? And, if not -- if the result of more awe really turned out to be more enlightenment -- how much enlightenment can post-industrial society handle?

It has been said, perhaps with with some exaggeration, that when an American starts wandering around saying, "I am God," our psychiatrists treat him for schizophrenia, while if someone in Bali or Uttar Pradesh does the same thing, the wise men and healers say, "Good! You finally noticed."

Without taking that little bit of satire as literal fact, one might still wonder what would happen if large numbers of correctional officers and construction foremen and advertising copywriters and human-resources managers started to act on deep mystical insight. How would their friends and families react? Could they keep their jobs? Could the institutions they serve keep running?

However we answer those questions, we then face the problem of what to do about it, in our own lives and through public policy. While religious freedom is a strongly-held value, the non-medical use of mind-altering drugs is an equally strong taboo, though an exception has been made for Native American use of peyote. Should that exception be extended to other religions, with different ethnic bases, using a wider range of plants and chemicals? And what if magnets or electrodes or sensory isolation and manipulation proved capable of mimicking the actions of the currently banned hallucinogens? How should the law deal with that?

The study of awe-inspiring experiences has great intrinsic interest, and it may also help us learn about the brain and the mind. But it may also be a topic of intense practical interest. As individuals and as a society, we may soon have some difficult choices to make. If this series of meetings helps get us ready to make those choices more wisely, it will have more than fulfilled our hopes.