30 September 2010

Were they raving loons?

On the 28th of August I had the opportunity to attend a conference at the University of Saint Thomas, "Religion, Mental Health, and the Search for Meaning: Bridging the Gaps". The bulk of the morning was a presentation by William Parsons, a professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. Part of his discussion was on the subject of the states of consciousness experienced by our foremost religious teachers, including Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed, at the time of their personal conversion experiences. He said they were in highly altered states of consciousness; "they were almost raving loons."

This is not the first time I have seen this correlation amongs the most popular religions. In The Perennial Philosophy, for example, Aldous Huxley considers the mysticism of the most important participants in the various faiths precisely what is most perennial about them. The prototype for academic objective examination of these theological technicalities is William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James was most impressed by the testimony of mystical experience, including those of his contemporaries, such as Richard Bucke. I admire James' book greatly, but feel it has been supplanted as the chief source on altered states by the work of Charles Tart, particularly his books Transpersonal Psychologies and Altered States of Consciousness.

My copy of Altered States of Consciousness has the most delightful blurb on the front cover: "The book to read if you're doing anything with meditation, dope, hypnosis, dreams, subjective exploration of any kind." --The Last Whole Earth Catalog. The blurb just about covers the entire depth that I will be able to explore regarding consciousness and altered states of consciousness in one blog post. It is a universe, and nearly entirely unexplored. I sometimes liken our map of human consciousness to those maps of North America from the seventeenth century where they had a river running from Lake Michigan to the San Francisco Bay. What we do not even know that we do not know is probably just about everything.

Having covered in ridiculous brevity what I think about altered states of consciousness, let us look at a few important cases.

I. Moses

Moses' conversion experience is recorded in the book of Exodus. He had a visitation from Yahweh, or a vision or a hallucination of the same, in the form of a burning bush. There are no historical or archaeological records of this. I assume that there was a real human event which is the origin of this story. And my most likely explanation includes a person we might as well call Moses in an altered state of consciousness. This is hardly a deduction. I am a fan of Charles Peirce and his process of abduction, or reasoning to the most likely explanation.

II. Buddha

Buddha's conversion experience is documented at great length in Buddhist texts, although the standards of peer review in ancient India are not quite as rigorous as modern science. In his case, lengthy meditations and mortifications (such as fasting) were involved over the course of years in his pursuit of enlightenment. He is reported to have experienced a vision of every single thing that had occurred in his experience over the course of several eons of different incarnations. Since Buddha was born into royalty, the documentation of his adventures is as substantial as for any of our subjects. They may even be more reliable. The idea that he would abandon his wife and just-born child to go off on religious quest is suspicious. Nevertheless, I have no problem concluding that a highly altered state of consciousness was involved in Buddha's conversion experience and the beginning of the tradition of Buddhism.

III. Jesus

Jesus' conversion experience is described in the gospels as also occurring on retreat. He went out into the desert to pray and to fast and there had a vision of Satan and three temptations. This marks the beginning of his career as a full-time preacher and prophet and healer. I enjoyed Martin Scorsese's take on this in his film The Last Temptation of Christ. Unlike many artists who have depicted Jesus, Scorsese (and his actor William Defoe) make no compromises on their interpretation of the culture and the people to make them familiar to the audience. This Jesus is an extremely foreign guy living in an extremely foreign culture. This world is so foreign one gets the impression the default mode of many was more altered states of consciousness than unaltered states of consciousness. Scorsese and Defoe's Jesus is hallucinating in the first frames of the film.

IV. Paul

Paul's conversion experience is described in the book of Acts as an interruption in his daily affairs as a soldier. He was traveling, on horseback, and had an overwhelming vision of sight and sound that left him incapacitated and blind for a period of days. The book of Acts says the soldiers on patrol with him heard the sounds but did not see the visions. There is a literature describing Paul as an epileptic and his conversion experience as an epileptic seizure. He was a Jew, but there are no reports of him performing extensive meditative or devotional acts which would be preparatory to proper trance preparation. I do not know what to make of all this, although by any description hallucinations of this magnitude are an altered state of consciousness.

V. Mohammed

Mohammed was meditating in a cave on Mount Hira for weeks when he received his vision of the angel Gabriel. This is closely parallel to the cases of Jesus and Buddha. An individual with a devotional bent and long meditations and presumably an altered state of consciousness at the time of his conversion experience.

Could you say they were raving loons? I would not, but the coincidence of altered states of consciousness and religious innovation seems fairly conclusive, at least from what we know of our most popular religions. The odd man out in this story is Paul, who unlike the others, was not searching at the time of his spiritual emergency. Perhaps this gives motivation for the people who argue for the epilepsy explanation.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.