The Long-term Effects of Mystical Experiences

difficult to define a mystical experience. What exactly does it
involve? Do they all share some basic elements? It’s probably a good
idea to broadly define
to include the different kinds of experiences that people report as
being mystical. What’s also interesting is that it is common for
mystical experiences to have lasting effects, especially in changes
to the personality. The changes can be positive or negative or a
mixture of both. The long-term effects seem to be heavily influenced
by context, that is, what the individual brings to the experience and
what they take from it. But I’ll get to that aspect of them later. A
mystical experience is easily understood as an “altered state of
consciousness” – they are not typical of one’s ordinary, waking
state of consciousness, but are more dream-like, trance-like, unique
and intense in their own right.

You can alter your state of
consciousness in a number of ways: tribal drumming, repetitive
dancing, fasting, sleep deprivation, dehydration, near-death experience, dreaming, chanting,
different kinds of meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, using
sensory deprivation tanks and taking drugs. Michael Persinger also tried (and
successfully did in some cases) induce a mystical experience by
manipulating the temporal lobe with magnetic fields. Check out his
paper The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences
for more detail on his “God helmet” that he developed.

kinds of altered states accessed by these methods will be very
different, but if they are mystical, they might share some common
features. These include contact (visually and/or auditory) with a
separate entity. If you are a Christian, this separate entity might
be Christ or the Virgin Mary, whereas if you are a Hindu this
separate entity might be the goddess Kali. William James said in his
book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
that a central feature of a mystical experience is its ineffability,
which means that you cannot explain the experience. People who are
asked what happened during their mystical experience might say that
“words cannot do it justice” or something similar. The experience
is completely alien and unrecognisable. Other common features
include: a loss of the boundary between yourself and the world, a
sense of timelessness or eternity, a feeling of ecstasy, union with the
universe, and the sense of gaining important insights and knowledge.

neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, who wrote the book Why God Won’t Go
, tried to find the brain
region or process responsible for these kinds of mystical
experiences. By scanning the brains of Tibetan monks deep in
meditation, he found that the posterior superior parietal
(which is involved in
creating spatial boundaries) is starved of input. Therefore, this
could be how that sense of “oneness” is achieved, by removing
one’s spatial boundaries.

This is an interesting finding, but it does
not shed much light on the various causes of mystical experiences or
what the long-term effects of these experiences might be. Nevertheless, the
subject of how religious practices can actually change your brain is
worth looking into, especially since some forms of meditation are
useful in reducing stress, anxiety and depression, and increasing
levels of concentration. For more on this, I would recommend
Newberg’s book How God Changes Your Brain.

have tried to describe some of the features of mystical experiences
as pathological, that
is, a sign of a mental disorder or mental dysfunction. In one case, a
man named Simon reported being the “living son of David (from
the Bible
)” and said he could
see sacred words and letters on ordinary objects. The DSM (Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) would describe this first
experience as a Delusion of Grandiose Ability and describe the second
experience as a Primary Delusion. However, the DSM also defines
psychotic in two ways;
first, as a temporary state and second, as a disorder. If Simon’s
experiences were long-lasting and constant, then we might want to
ascribe his experiences to a mental disorder.

Some writers have even
suggested that mystical experiences in general are mentally quite healthy. Carl Jung, for example, said in his essay Psychology
and Religion
, that a mystical
experience was a “psychologically healthy experience.” In a study
carried out by Dale Caird, it was found that individuals who reported
having a mystical experience scored higher on psychological
well-being scales compared to the control group. William James argued
that it is difficult for mystical experiences to have long-lasting
negative effects because these experiences are transient,
that is, they do not last for very long. Disorders such as depression
and schizophrenia, on the other hand, are long-lasting and that is
what makes them a disorder and not an experience. This seems like a
fair distinction, but there are cases where mystical experiences have
developed into psychotic episodes.

Greenberg followed four Jewish mystics who became engulfed in the
teachings of Kabbalah. Greenberg pinpointed the cause of their
psychosis as the inability to control entry into the mystical state.
This loss of control is what eventually led to their paranoid
delusions and withdrawal from the social world. Becoming obsessed
with the mystical experience and isolating yourself from the ordinary
world is a recipe for disaster. Remember, it is not so much the
mystical experience itself, but its context which can lead to
positive or negative effects.

Back to Greenberg’s findings, it seems
that when the entry into the mystical experience is controlled and
voluntary, it is less likely to have long-term negative effects.
Taking hallucinogenic drugs would be an example of controlling your
entry into the mystical state. To have long-lasting positive results,
it is also important for the person to integrate the experience into
ordinary reality and not letting it disrupt their relationships,
family and career.

a mystical experience is defined as having good or bad long-term
effects heavily depends on cultural context. For example, the
Ashaninka people
living in Peru regularly take ayahuasca
(orally active form of DMT) and claim to be in contact with “spirits”
during the experience, but continue to believe in their existence
after the experience is over. Now a Western doctor might diagnose
these people as possibly schizophrenic or delusional, but because the
ayahuasca experience is the cultural norm, it does not cause
long-lasting problems. In fact, the experiences seem to create
long-lasting stability, community and well-being among the Ashaninka
people. Mystical experiences are actually very common and are
considered healthy in many societies. The anthropologist Erika
Bourguignon found that out of 448 societies, 52% of them would engage
in some sort of religious trance which involved “possession by
spiritual beings.”

studies now seem to confirm the potential long-term benefits of
mystical experiences caused by psychedelic drugs. In Rick Strassman’s
DMT: The Spirit Molecule,
several participants reported an elevation in mood and general
outlook on life long after the session with DMT was finished. In a
now famous study of psilocybin
(in magic mushrooms), a group from John Hopkins University found that
out of the
as being
The participants reported to have increases in aesthetic
appreciation, imagination, creativity and in higher doses (which are
more likely to cause mystical experiences) participants said that
they felt more “openness” a year after the session.
in the study also reported “sustained positive changes in attitudes
and behaviour.” 

Eric Kast has claimed that LSD could be useful for
patients who are dying of a terminal illness. If used in a
therapeutic setting, Kast says that LSD can break down the
psychological barriers (such as fear of death) of the patient and
make them more responsive to their environment and family. 


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