Richard G. Petty, MD

Charles Tart's Library

If you are at all interested in altered states of consciousness, transpersonal psychology, parapsychology or spirituality, you will find a great many useful and interesting papers written by Professor Charles Tart.

I was smitten by his work when I read his classic book Altered States of Consciousness in 1969, and he reamins one of the most respected figures in these fields

I have followed his work closely ever since, and his library of free articles is a treasure trove containing papers written between 1963 and 2006.

Charlie is currently a Core Faculty Member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California, a Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Sausalito, California, as well as Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Davis campus of the University of California.

I would like to thank him and many publishers for making all this material freely available.

Albert Schweitzer

Today is the birthday of Albert Schweitzer who was born in  Kaysersberg, Alsace-Lorraine, Germany. It is one of those parts of the world that has often changed hands and is now in Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France.

He was a remarkable man: as a youngster he was a famous organist and was highly interested in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whom he regarded as a religious mystic.

He decided that after the age of 30 he would dedicate himself to the service of humanity and became both a theologian and physician. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his philosophy of "reverence for life" expressed in many ways but most famously in founding and sustaining the Lambaréné Hospital in Gabon, west central Africa.

I have heard some people be very critical of Schweitzer, describing him as patronizing toward Africa. I don’t think that is right. If you look at his actions and his writings, it is clear that he had an extraordinary compassion and vision.

Here are a few of his writings from my own collection. I hope that you find some of them as inspirational as I have.

“A great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.”

“A heavy guilt rests upon us for what the whites of all nations have done to the colored peoples. When we do good to them, it is not benevolence it is atonement.”

“A man can do only what he can do. But if he does that each day he can sleep at night and do it again the next day.”

“A man does not have to be an angel to be a saint.”

"All the kindness which a man puts out into the world
works on the heart and thoughts of mankind.”

“All work that is worth anything is done in faith.”

“An idea is, in the end, always stronger than circumstances.”

“Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of their way, but must accept their lot calmly, even if people roll a few stones upon it.”

“As soon as man does not take his existence for granted, but beholds it as something unfathomably mysterious, thought begins.”

“As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.”

“At that point in life where your talent meets the needs of the world, that is where God wants you to be.”

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”

“Be faithful to your love and you will be recompensed beyond measure.”

“Because I have confidence in the power of Truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind.”

“By having reverence for life, we enter into a spiritual relation with the world.”

“Do something wonderful, people may imitate it.”

“Ethical existence is the highest manifestation of spirituality.”

“Ethics, too, are nothing but reverence for life. That is what gives me the fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, promoting, and enhancing life, and that destroying, injuring, and limiting life are evil.”

“Every man has to seek his own way to make himself more noble and to realize his own true worth”

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

“I have always held firmly to the thought that each one of us can do a little to bring some portion of misery to an end.”

"If you love what you are doing, you will be successful."

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

“In the same way as the tree bears the same fruit year after year, but each time new fruit, all lastingly valuable ideas in thinking must always be reborn.”

“It seemed to me a matter of course that we should all take our share of the burden of pain which lies upon the world.”

“Knowing all truth is less than doing a little bit of good.”

“Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall.  He will end by destroying the earth.”

“Man is a clever animal who behaves like an imbecile.”

“Medicine is not only a science, but also the art of letting our own individuality interact with the individuality of the patient.”

“Natural and super-natural, temporal and eternal – continuums, not absolutes.”

“No ray of sunshine is ever lost,  but the green which it awakens into existence needs time to sprout,  and it is not always granted for the sower to see the harvest. All work that is worth anything is done in faith.”

“One thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

“One truth stands firm. All that happens in world history rests on something spiritual. If the spiritual is strong, it creates world history. If it is weak, it suffers world history.”

“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.”

“Only those who respect the personality of others can be of real use to them.”

“Reverence for life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely that good consists in maintaining, assisting, and enhancing life, and that to destroy, to harm, or to hinder life is evil.”

“Success is not the key to happiness; Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”

“The awareness that we are all human beings together has become lost in war and through politics.”

“The first step in the evolution of ethics is an enlargement of the sense of solidarity with other human beings.”

“The greatest discovery of any generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of  mind.” (He is here reiterating something said by the great psychologist and philosopher William James)

“The human spirit is not dead. It lives on in secret…. It has come to believe that compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.”

“The man who h
as become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give to every will-to-live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own.”

“The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives.”

“The true worth of a man is not to be found in man himself, but in the colors and textures that come alive in others.”

“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.”

“There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.”

“There is so much coldness in the world because we are afraid to be as cordial as we really are.”

“To educate yourself for gratitude means to take nothing for granted but to seek out and value the kindness that lies behind the action.”

“Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.”

“Very little of the great cruelty shown by men can really be attributed to cruel instinct. Most of it comes from thoughtlessness or inherited habit. The roots of cruelty, therefore, are not so much strong as widespread. But the time must come when inhumanity protected by custom and thoughtlessness will succumb before humanity championed by thought. Let us work that this time may come.”

“We cannot possibly let ourselves get frozen into regarding everyone we do not know as an absolute stranger.”

“Wherever a man turns he can find someone who needs him.”

“Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.  But if you hold it up against the light of God’s goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright.  And then you ask yourself in amazement:  Is this really my own life I see before me?”

The Irreducible Mind

I get a great many requests for recommendations for books and papers that either debate or provide support for the topics that I discuss on this blog and in my books and articles. That is why I’ve been constructing some reading lists at and linking them to this website.

A friend recently commented that she was surprised that the book and CD series, Healing, Meaning and Purpose that was created for a general audience, contains over 800 books and websites. My response to that was that I think that my readers and listeners are all grown ups who should be able to check everything that any author says!

The days of authors or speakers waving their hands about and making airy statements are finally coming to an end. If an author tells you that "science" proves what they are saying, they must show that they understand the topic themselves. I just saw yet another paper in which the writer said, "Quantum mechanics proves what I’m saying, but let’s not get into that." Well, that’s just the point: let us indeed get into that to see if what you are saying holds water!

Which brings me to a book that I’ve just read and reviewed. It is entitled Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century and it is an extraordinary achievement. For the last century, the vast majority psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have believed that thoughts, emotions and consciousness are the product of physical processes in the brain. And , of course, the brain is heavily involved in many  mental phenomena. The question has always been if neurological activity is sufficient to explain the whole of human experience.

This new book presents the most comprehensive and critical analysis of phenomena normally ignored by psychology, including mystical experiences, the placebo response, stigmata and hypnotic suggestion, memories that survive physical death, near death experiences, automatic writing, out-of-body experiences, apparitions, deathbed visions and many more.

It comes to the inescapable conclusion that the mind is not generated by the brain but is instead limited and constrained by it. There is no hand waving, and no "science has shown that…" Instead everything is laid out in front of you. There are a hundred pages of citations and references. Despite that, it is an easy and enjoyable read.

I have no personal connection with the book, but the next time that someone says that there’s no proof for any of these phenomena, and that emotions, cognitions and consciousness are just byproducts of biochemical processes in the brain, refer them to this book.

And if Santa brought you any gift cards that you haven’t used yet, you might want to have a look at the book for yourself.

Eye Color

“The eye is the jewel of the body.”
–Henry David Thoreau (American Essayist and Philosopher, 1817-1862)

In November we had a look at new data suggesting that eye color may have developed as a kind of “instant paternity test.”

Now scientists in Brisbane, Australia are reporting that they have uncovered the genetics of eye color, and that they are surprisingly simple. Which is just what we would expect if something were biologically important.

The research is published in the current issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics.

After studying 3,839 individuals, it turns out that of the six billion or so “letters” that make up the human genetic code, a handful of “single nucleotide polymorphisms” (SNPs – pronounced “snips”) are largely responsible for the color of your eyes. These SNPs consist of a change in just one “letter” in the genetic sequence. All the SNPs are located near a gene called OCA2. This gene produces a protein that helps give hair, skin and eyes their color. And mutations in OCA2 cause the most common type of albinism. So these gene mutations modify the amount of pigment in the iris: people with brown eyes have more pigment than people with blue. The odd one out is people with green eyes. In them the changes in the genes seems to have produced a functional change in the pigmentation protein itself.

This is interesting for another reason. There are a small number of medicines and clinical conditions that are associated with changes in the color of the iris. But I have also seen some people whose eye color has changed very rapidly in response to changes in mood, attention or concentration. I have also sometimes seen it happen when people have achieved some altered state of consciousness through prayer or meditation. Yet there is hardly any scientific research into this odd but uncommon phenomenon.

I did find two studies from Korea that attempted to associate a gene for angiotensin converting enzyme and the apolipoprotein e gene with iris type. The trouble with these studies was that they were very small and started with the assumption that iridology could be used to diagnose a physical problem, even though the research (1. 2. 3. 4.) has shown that it cannot.

I had assumed that these rapid changes in eye color had something to do with changes in blood flow in the eye, and that does remain the most likely explanation. But the question now is whether the SNPs associated with eye color are themselves modulated by mood, cognition or spiritual insight.

If you have ever observed changes in iris color in yourself or other people, I would be very interested to hear from you.

“All our souls are written in our eyes.”

–Edmund Rostand (French Poet, 1868-1918)

Chronic Fatigue, Epileptic Seizures and Spirituality

Old habits die hard.

I get to hear about a great many medical and psychological problems in people in the public eye. But after 30+ years in medicine, I don’t talk about them. That’s obvious if someone is my patient: everything is completely confidential. But I also will not talk about medical problems in other people, unless they volunteer information.

Many of us have been very concerned over the physical health of the philosopher Ken WIlber.

In August I posted a brief note after he had taken a nasty tumble. I also pointed out that many of his problems with chronic fatigue syndrome could also be re-framed as "Diseases of Discipleship." Based on that, I made some predictions about other possible symptoms.

Ken has now written an extraordinarily important piece, after he suffered from a series of grand mal epileptic seizures at the beginning of December. I had heard about these problems, but would not post anything until Ken did. Even when I saw some really silly comments about the causes of his problems!

There has been speculation for many years now that many shamans had epilepsy or occasional epileptic seizures. There is also an association between one type of epilepsy and hyper-religiosity.

If you have any interest in the deeper meaning of chronic illness, the spiritual path and karma, I urge you to take a few moments to read Ken’s article.

He also mentions a website with more information about the whole Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue complex. I have checked the out, and I agree that this is a most helpful resource.

Get well soon, Ken!

Psilocybin and Mystical Experience

The Psilocybin Molecule

We have discussed mystical experiences a couple of times recently. They are important not only because of what they may teach us about altered states of consciousness, but because they may contain genuine revelations about the nature of reality and they are invariably profoundly meaningful to the person having them.

Earlier this year there was a paper that seemed to come in under some people’s radar, though several heavyweights in the world of psychopharmacology spoke approvingly of the research.

The paper was entitled, “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” There are also some superb commentaries on the original paper, all of which are available for free download if you click on the links above.

So what got everyone so excited?

Psilocybin is a psychedelic alkaloid that has been used for religious purposes for centuries. The researchers conducted a double-blind study on the acute and longer-term psychological effects of a high dose of psilocybin. What was particularly important was that the 36 experimental subjects had no previous experience of hallucinogens but who were regularly participating in religious or spiritual activities.

It is also important that the experiments were performed in comfortable, supportive surroundings. The last thing that anyone wanted was for people to have a “Bad trip” and to be left without care and support.

They were given psilocybin and methylphenidate (Ritalin) in separate sessions, the methylphenidate sessions serving as a control and active placebo; the tests were double-blind, with neither the subject nor the administrator knowing which drug was being administered. The degree of mystical experience was measured using a questionnaire on mystical experience developed by Ralph W Hood.

61% of subjects reported a “complete mystical experience” after their psilocybin session, while only 13% reported such an outcome after their experience with methylphenidate. Two months after taking psilocybin, 79% of the participants reported moderately to greatly increased life satisfaction and sense of well-being.

About 36% of participants also had a strong to extreme “experience of fear” or dysphoria (eg, a “bad trip”) at some point during the psilocybin session (which was not reported by any subject during the methylphenidate session), with about one-third of these (13% of the total) reporting that this dysphoria dominated the entire session. These negative effects were reported to be easily managed by the researchers and did not have a lasting negative effect on the subject’s sense of well-being.

The observation that psilocybin reliably elicits a transcendent, mystical state tells us that investigations of these drugs may help us understand molecular alterations in the brain that underlie mystical religious experiences.

But the key point to be made is that finding a biochemical basis for mystical experiences does nothing to belittle them. The biochemical and neurological approaches have nothing to say about the personal meaning and the cultural and social components of the experience. To use Ken Wilber’s terminology, this research is only addressing the Upper Right Hand Quadrant.

Important work to be sure, but it would be a mistake to try to reduce mystical experiences to 5HT2A,C receptors alone.

“For what is Mysticism? It is not the attempt to draw near to God, not by rites or ceremonies, but by inward disposition? Is it not merely a hard word for ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within’? Heaven is neither a place nor a time.”
Florence Nightingale (English Pioneer of Nursing Known as the “Lady with the Lamp,” 1820-1910)

“The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write. …I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renaissance – the revolt of the soul against the intellect.”

— William Butler Yeats (Irish Poet, Dramatist, Writer and, in 1923, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1865-1939)

Links, Citations and References

Following my recent article about mystical experiences, I had a charming note which included this question:

"Could you kindly give a reference or link to the above quote from Ramana Maharshi?"

This was my response:

"I am traveling at the moment, so I don’t have access to my library.

Happily I remember exactly where the quote came from. It was from someone who taught me a great deal – the late Paul Brunton. I think that Paul probably did more to introduce Ramana Maharshi to the West than anyone else, and he was also a close friend of Aurobindo. He once commented that it was rather convenient that two of the greatest sages of the 20th century only lived 65 miles apart!

He also mentions Ramana’s comment in Chapter 9, paragraph 23 of Volume 16 of The Notebooks of Paul Brunton.

Here’s the exact quote:
"That these differences of view exist even among illumined mystics is a striking but rarely studied fact. Why did Ramana Maharshi poke gentle fun at Aurobindo’s doctrine of spiritual planes?"

I do not know off hand whether there are any websites that specifically discuss their – respectful – differences of opinion.

If that does not give you what you need, please do let me know: I shall be home in a couple of days and I’d be happy to do a bit more digging in my library: I have over 12,000 volumes, and there are quite a lot of lesser known titles in there. Since I raised it, I shall also have a look online when I get home.”

The reason for re-printing this correspondence is this. Regular readers will know that my blog entries are festooned with links, citations and references. That is very deliberate. This blog is a bit different from most of the other medical ones out there in that I try to ensure that you can check everything that I say.

The other day I had the privilege of speaking to the Rotary Club of New York and mentioned that I had written something about five strategies that can dramatically reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as well as discussing some of the evidence concerning nutrition and neurogenesis: the production of new neurons. I was asked what they were, and I recommended that people asking the question should check out the article. The reason was simply this: I wanted them to see the evidence for themselves.

I think that we have all had enough of people simply expressing opinions.

Now is the time for people who are writing on line – or anywhere else for that matter – to provide data to support what they are saying.

If you need further reading material on any of the topics that I write about, just let me know: I have access to a great many sources that are not always easy to get at.

Mystical Experience

I recently wrote a little bit about mystical experiences and mentioned the most widely used “definition,” the Stace Criteria:

  1. Deeply positive mood
  2. Experience of Union
  3. Ineffable sense
  4. Enhanced sense of meaning, authenticity and reality
  5. Altered space and time perception/transcendence
  6. Acceptance of normally contradictory propositions

There are many ways of inducing the mystical state: –

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Control of breathing: e.g. Pranayama
  • Chanting: e.g. Zoroastrian priests
  • Dance and movement: for example the whirling Dervishes or Morihei Ueshiba who reportedly achieved a state of mystical union after performing kata
  • Light, as happened with the mystic Jacob Boehme
  • Biofeedback
  • Mantra
  • Drugs

Although many people deliberately seek mystical experiences, some come out of a clear blue sky: the French writer, philosopher and Marxist materialist, Simone Weil, reported how reciting a devotional-metaphysical poem by the English religious poet George Herbert (1593-1633) while highly concentrated and emotional, turned her from an agnostic into a mystic. She was not looking for it to happen: it was unsought as it was unexpected. What was interesting was that after that first time, particularly in the last year of her life, she had mystical insights several times a week. Despite – or perhaps because – she was suffering from tuberculosis and was first in a hospital and then in a sanatorium during most of that time.

Some children have had a mystical glimpse before the age of ten, more during adolescence and still more during their thirties or forties. Richard Maurice Bucke in his classic book, Cosmic Consciousness, thought that the peak time was in the early thirties, but it can still happen in people in their seventies.

Many people need a dramatic shock – some form of enforced awakening – that subjugates the ego. Only then do they come alive spiritually. This enforced awakening is effective only if it breaks down old habits, trends, and beliefs. It may come about through working with or reading a teacher like Krishnamurti or Gurdjieff, or through major life events like a life threatening illness or unexpected bereavement. There is also little doubt that people become more interested in spiritual matters and more receptive to them at key points in their lives. Sometimes the experiences may occur as part of the process of individuation described by Carl Jung.

Some years ago I wrote a speculative piece suggesting that some mystical experiences may be triggered by a neurological mechanism involving the reticular activating system of the brain. The popular idea that mysticism is somehow related to the right hemisphere of the brain is probably not accurate. With the passage of time, it begins to look as if those speculations were accurate. Though one of the points that I made at the time, is that although we might be able to find a neurological substrate for mystical experiences that provide the form of the experience, that still left us with the problem of the content of the experience and therefore of its meaning for the individual.

At the beginning, the content of the mystical experience is culture bound and tends to be a product of a person’s belief system, which is why some mystics contradict each other. The Indian spiritual teacher Swami Ramdas (1884-1963) said that joy was both evidence of spiritual fulfillment and an ingredient of spiritual practice, while Simone Weil took an exactly opposite view and substituted unhappiness and suffering for joy: each proposed that a personal experience reflected a broadly universal truth. This is has been a common error for many spiritual teachers and their followers.

Saint Teresa of Ávila, a.k.a. St. Teresa de Jesus, the Spanish nun, mystic and author (1515-1582) was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, and her mystical revelations fit into classical Catholic dogma. In contrast a modern Christian mystic – Holden Edward Sampson – who was brought up in the Protestant Evangelical Church, thought that his personal experiences proved that Saint Teresa’s writings were false.

These differences of opinion, even amongst the most advanced mystics, are striking but not often discussed. As an example, it amused me to see Ramana Maharshi make gentle fun of Sri Aurobindo’s doctrine of spiritual planes. I love and rever the workds of both of these sages. Simone Weil staunchly promoted the spirituality of Greek culture while the French-born writer René Guénon a.k.a. Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya thought that there was nothing much
to it. As people progress, there is usually more of a confluence:
mystics tend to report similar experiences, but they are often still
colored by their past lives.

Many people have mystical and spiritual experiences without knowing what is happening to them: they have never studied or been taught anything about them. I have seen quite a number of people who were supposed to be suffering from a psychotic episode, but who were actually having a profound spiritual experience. I have seen many thousands of psychotic people in almost fifty countries, and it is normally not that difficult to differentiate a breakdown from a breakthrough. Though even the most experienced of people sometimes find it difficult to be 100% certain what is going on.

It is essential for health care providers and for anyone who comes into contact with an individual who is having strange experiences, not simple to label them as mentally ill, but to remain alert to the possibility that there may be something yet more profound and meaningful going on in their lives.

Though for some people medicines, psychotherapy and the rest may be very helpful, others need spiritual support and guidance as they grow through a process of spiritual growth.

Hypnagogia: The Waking Dream

Most of us have experienced the brief transition between wakefulness and sleep as we fall asleep. This is the hypnagogic state, though it has been known by many names: “the borderland state," the “half-dream state,” the “pre-dream condition.” The name for these strange hallucinations is “hypnagogia.”

Although there are innumerable books about dreams, there is to my knowledge only one book in English that is dedicated to hypnagogia, by the psychologist Andreas Mavromatis. There are also not that many good websites dealing with the phenomenon, though I’ve found one or two really good ones. This is a little surprising, for the hypnagogic state is one of the most fascinating altered states of consciousness that we can experience without the use of drugs, and there are dozens of spiritual schools that encourage their students to work with these hypnagogic hallucinations. They are different form the hallucinations that may occur in neurological problems: those tend to occupy only one sense at a time, while the hypnagogic hallucinations, though sometimes no more that flashes of light or odd shapes, can be highly complex and involve multiple sensory modalities: what we call multi-modal hallucinations. Some people may feel as if they are floating, and it is not uncommon for people to kick out or grasp as they feel as if they are falling from a great height.

The term “hypnagogic” was coined by the 19th-century French psychologist Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury, and is derived from two Greek words, Hypnos (Sleep) and agogeus (A guide, or leader). Some years later, the English poet, essayist and psychical researcher Frederic William Henry Myers coined the term, “hypnapompic,” to describe similar phenomena that may occur as we wake from sleep.

Long before Maury, many writers commented on these odd experiences. Here are just a few that I’ve heard about:

  1. Aristotle spoke of the “affections we experience when sinking into slumber, and the images which present themselves to us in sleep.”
  2. Iamblichus of Chalcis, the third century Neo-Platonic philosopher, wrote of the “voices” and “bright and tranquil lights” that came to him in the condition between sleeping and waking, that he believed were a form experience sent by God.
  3. There is some evidence that the alchemists of the Middle Ages made use of a form of hypnagogia during their meditations, preparations and distillations. I’ve seen it suggested that the weird characters and eerie landscapes that seem to fill alchemical illustrations might have been the fruits of focusing on hypnagogic hallucinations, though they could just as easily have come from dreams or drugs.
  4. In 1600, the Elizabethan astrologer and occultist Simon Forman wrote of his apocalyptic visions. He saw mountains and hills that came rolling against him on the point of sleep and beyond which he could see vast boiling waters.
  5. Thomas Hobbes spoke of images of lines and angles seen on the edge of sleep accompanied by an “odd kind of fancy” to which he could give no particular name.
  6. Emmanuel Swedenborg the 18th century philosopher, scientist and visionary developed a method of inducing and exploring hypnagogic states, during which he claimed to have traveled to Heaven, Hell and other planets. He recorded several other techniques that he used to gain his insights, including a particular type of hyperventilation.
  7. The theosophical writer Oliver Fox used the hypnagogic hallucinations as a “doorway” through which he was able to go astral traveling.
  8. Rudolf Steiner, advised that the best time for communicating with the dead was in the period between waking and sleep. He claimed that if you asked the dead a question as you fell asleep, they would answer you the next morning His records look very much like hypnagogic hallucinations.
  9. The Russian writer and philosopher P.D. Ouspensky is someone else who made a detailed study of hypnagogia. Like many of the others that I’ve mentioned, he made a number of interesting discoveries about the Universe while in this state. It is these insights, and their similarities across cultures that suggest that there’s more to hypnagogia than random neuronal firing.

It is interesting that although hypnagogia can produce millions of different experiences. When people start using them for exploration, they seem to generate many similar insights. This is rather different from the mystical experience. In which peoples’ experiences have similar form, but different content.

The most widely used criteria of the mystical experience were assembled by the English philosopher W.T. Stace, who taught at Princeton for many years:

  1. Deeply positive mood
  2. Experience of Union
  3. Ineffable sense
  4. Enhanced sense of meaning, authenticity and reality
  5. Altered space and time perception/transcendence
  6. Acceptance of normally contradictory propositions

I shall have more to say about mystical experiences in another posting.

For now, if you are interested in doing some self-exploration, and you are not using either medications or alcohol, the hypnagogic state is a great place to start. Occasionally people find the exploration scary, so only do this if you are up to it, and don’t if you are given to nervous or psychological problems. When I’m working with people I always ensure that they are in tip top condition before trying ANY kind of psychological exploration.

Try becoming aware of the transition between wakefulness and sleep. At first you will fall asleep, but with a small amount of practice, most people can quickly begin to keep themselves in the state, and then start exploring. Many people find that they get some profound intuitions while in the hypnagogic state, and unlike the kinds of “insights” that people get while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they make sense in the morning. Relax, keep a diary, take it in easy stages, and see what you can discover for yourself. If you come across anything unpleasant, stop, and we can try some different exercises.


Over the last three decades researchers at a number of universities have studied meditators and people in prayer, or experiencing mystical experiences, and tried to pinpoint the region of the brain responsible for these experiences. Some researchers went as far as to suggest that there’s a specific region of the brain that’s responsible for direct communication with God, while others have been far more skeptical. One of my early teachers was convinced that mystical experiences were simply forms of temporal lobe epilepsy. I was just as convinced that he was wrong. But back then I was the student, and he the master. So I was put firmly in my place. Neuropsychologist Michael Persinger and his group at Laurentian University in Canada has reported that he can very precise magnetic fields to artificially stimulate regions within the temporal lobes to induce a state of “sensed presence.”

A new study conducted by Mario Beauregard and Vincent Paquette from Montreal has just been published in the journal Neuroscience Letters.

The investigators used functional MRI (fMRI) scanning in 15 Carmelite nuns to try to examine the brain processes underlying the Unio Mystica: the Christian notion of mystical union with God. This is the latest episode in a field that is becoming known as neurotheology.

The nuns were asked to relive a mystical experience rather than actually trying to achieve one. Rather than reveal a spiritual center in the brain – a “God spot,” as the popular press called it – the researchers found a dozen different regions of the brain were activated during the recall of the mystical experience. The experience was mediated by brain systems and regions that are normally implicated in emotion, self-awareness and body representation.

It is important to note that despite the title of the study – “Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns” – this was actually an experiment on memory, and there were some technical objections to the study. There is a fine critique here.

There is also a point that I have brought up before: can we really try to reduce complex psychological and spiritual experiences to a groups or systems of neurons? My own view is that we are seeing necessary neurological correlates of an experience, but that these measurements tell us nothing at all about the key aspects of what the nuns remember: the sense of meaning, value and purpose that flow from the mystical experience.

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